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Talmudic Treasures by Rabbi Ziona Zelazo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Monday, August 31, 2020


Yevamot 121a: Swimming in the rough waters of crisis

     Crisis is a term everyone I know is familiar with and experiencing it. It is something that has been around in each generation, going back all the way to Biblical times. We know that a “crisis” can take many different shapes and forms; counting from personal, to social collective, and to global platforms. I imagine that many of us consider the COVID-19 as being present in all of these platforms. Its also being manifested on the physical, emotional, psychological, economic, political, nationwide and worldwide levels.

    There are different ways how to handle crisis. Each one of us deals with challenges and struggles in their own way. Some internalize the issues, others seek to have conversations that might relief emotions, or others just fear with panic. It is not my intention to point a finger to any one way to actually manage a crisis, but I have 2 midrashim from Talmud Bavli, which demonstrate to us the main points I raised.

 Have a look at these stories from Yevamot 121a;

Story 1:

“Rabban Gamliel said: Once I was traveling on a boat, and I saw a boat that shattered and I was grieved over the Torah scholar who was on board. And who was it? Rabbi Akiva. But when I disembarked onto dry land, he came, and sat, and deliberated before me about halakha. I said to him: My son, who brought you up? He said to me: A plank from the boat came my way, and to every wave that approached me I nodded my head".


Story 2:

“Rabbi Akiva said: Once I was traveling on a boat, and I saw a certain boat sinking at sea, and I was grieved over the apparent death of the Torah scholar who was on board. And who was it? Rabbi Meir. But when I disembarked at the province of Cappadocia, he came, and sat, and deliberated before me about halakha. I said to him: My son, who brought you up from the water? He said to me: One wave carried me to another, and that other wave to another, until I reached the shore, and a wave cast me up onto dry land.”                                                                                            

    These stories, which show up on the same page of the Gemara, seem to have a lot in common. First, the rabbis use water as the metaphor for crisis. Interesting. Water could be life giving and cleansing, and at the same time – it could also be dangerous with uncertainty. So, although the challenging experiences, the rabbis survived the harsh waves.

Secondly, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Meir survived from drowning at sea. Both were respected rabbis that were cherished by their teachers; Rabban Gamliel, who was Rabbi Akiva’s teacher, and Rabbi Akiva, who was Rabbi Meir’s teacher. And thirdly, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Meir did not resist the waves. There was no panic and no fighting back. They saved their energy to focus on what can be their inner strength to help them survive. Focus on the NOW.

 So what is the difference between these 2 stories?

 At first glance, we will notice that what is different is “a different attitude to the crisis”.

 In Rabbi Akiva’s case, he holds on to a board that fell off the boat. It is said “daf” which in Hebrew refers to a page in the Torah. He is holding on the essence of Torah, which means - faith. And when nodding to each wave that passes he shows gratefulness that he survived just another wave. This is also a source of strength to accept the reality as is. I imagine that when accepting a crisis, it might be easier to deal with it later.

 In Rabbi Meir’s case, who is also holding his position and just allowing the waves to carry him closer and closer to shore, we see how he shows his acceptance to the crisis by “going with the flow”.

 Rabbi Akiva was active, while Rabbi Meir was passive. Hope, faith, surrender… can work if we choose to.

   What I learnt from these 2 stories about myself is that I will not judge or condemn someone who deals with crisis in a different way than I do. I will remember that although there are different ways to deal with crisis, there is also a way to reach out to those who struggle, to show them they are not alone, and demonstrate care and compassion.

What about you? Any other comments you can share?


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