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October 04, 1985 - Image 30

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1985-10-04

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

30 Friday, October 4, 1985

THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS

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4,

to his success as the group's or-
ganizer. "Baruch ha-Shem,
baruch ha-Shem," he said, bless-
ing God but seeming to praise
himself more.
The rav cut him off. "Tanya,"
he began, reading aloud from
the text. It was enough to get us
all to immediately focus upon
the text open before us. "Abba
Binyamin said: 'There are two
things I have fretted about all
my life — that I pray before I
die and that I lie with my body
lying north to south.'
"What does this mean, the
Gemara asks — that his death
be put off by his prayers or that
he have an opportunity to pray
just before his death?"
A few of the men tried to cue
the text and began to offer an
answer, but the rav continued
with his reading. "It means that
he hoped for the opportunity to
pray just before the moment of
his passing.
"And what does it mean to lie
with his body lying north to
south?"
"Gentlemen. This is not an
easy piece of Gemara. We must
struggle to give meaning to a
sacred text — that perhaps more
than anything else reflected the
devotion of the men of the bes
medresh. To discover meaning
even where there appears to be
little; to dismiss nothing of the
sacred tradition.
The rav continued: "We have
learned a law that people are
not too careful about these days
— to place their beds along a
north-south line. But we must
discovdr why this is so. First,
though, let us go back to the be-
ginning of the text.
"'All my life I have fretted.'
Why must he fret?" Well, we
can understand why he fretted.
After all, which of us can know
what it will be like just before
we die? It must surely cause us
all a deep anxiety. Lying in a
bed facing north and south —
that's something else.
"A man is a complex creation,
made up of a body and a soul,
forces that oppose each other —
like fire and water. If a person
leads them both according to the
ways of the Torah, then the soul
can be carried and controlled by
the body.
"Prayer bears the soul. It is
not, gentlemen, simply the reci-
tation of words. It bears the soul
— that is what the beginning of
our text is trying to tell us." His
inflection implored our under-
standing; his loud voice de-
manded it. "As the bed bears
the body, Abba Binyamin
wanted his soul and his body to
be under the sway of the Torah,
for he understood that the two
were intertwined, inseparable."
For a few moments the Tal-
mud had been opened up, and I
could see into a text that a mo-
ment earlier had been opaque to
me. Through metaphor, the
rabbi had taken all of us into a
passage that would otherwise
have excluded me. That literary
approach was something I could
relate to and cothprehend. It
could bridge my two worlds.
We now looped into and out of

legal arguments, trying to
straighten out the law and dis-
cover its demands. Some asked
questions; others offered chal-
lenges or alternative interpreta-
tions. It dawned on me that by
now we were reenacting in our
lernen precisely what the text
itself was doing: jumping from
topic to topic, story to story, de-
bate to debate. That was what it
meant to enter into the Talmud,
to speak its words as if they
were one's own. We were giving
life to the Oral Tradition that
had been embedded in the pages
in front of us.
Reb Shimileh was bringing in
tea and cookies now. The rav
got his tea first, a glass filled
with the darkest liquid of all, a

Our hearts might be
warmed by words of
Torah, but our
bodies also needed a
hot tea.

bag still in it. Then each of the
otehrs got one. I didn't know it
then, but I would later learn
that there was a precise order in
the way the drinks were dis-
tributed. The scholars and
seniors were first; young new-
corners like me came last.
At first the tea party seemed
to me extraneous to the lernen.
In the interstices of an argu-
ment someone would whisper a
request for the cookie plate or
sugar bowl. Between the flights
of narrative and legalistic
argument the sounds of spoons
stirring sugar into gIffsses
seemed incidental. -
But when I saw, week after
week, how important the ritual
of its distribution and drinking
was to the men, I began to won-
der if I was missing some of its
significance. Never would the
group allow the tea to be mis-
sed. Never would they even
permit it to come too late. But
although I came to look forward
to the t'ta as much as all the
others, it wasn't until I reviewed
my tape recordings of this first
visit that I finally saw the con-
nection. It was in the relation-
ship between body and the
spirit. One might refresh the
spirit with Talmud, but pre-
cisely because — as the rav told
us on my first night — the body
and soul were forces opposing
each other, one could not refresh
one without sustaining the
other. Our hearts might be
warmed by words of Torah, but
our bodies also needed a hot tea.
And besides, men who traveled
together through the special
world of the page shared a fel-
lowship that the tea helped ce-
ment.

After that first evening, I be-
came a regular at Heichal
Baruch. As the weeks and
months passed, I found myself
looking forward all week to my
Tuesday-evening class. The rav

Continued on Page 64

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