By Rabbi Yehoshua Berman
Kesuvos 2 – Breaking through the Chains that Hold You Down
“By the Master of Avraham!” That was Rav Yosef’s reaction of bafflement at a statement that he himself had taught. The Mishna says that the reason besulos get married on Wednesdays is that if the husband has a claim that she was not a besulah, he’ll immediately go to Beis Din the next morning on Thursday when they are in session. Rav Yosef had a teaching from Rav Yehudah going all the way back to Shmuel, though, that the reason that besulos get married on Wednesdays is to make it that if the twelve-month deadline for the chasunah arrives on an earlier day in the week, the husband is still not obligated to pay for her support.
Rav Yosef found himself absolutely stupefied by this statement, as it seems to make no sense. Rashi explains that part of what was going on here is that Rav Yosef, at one point in his life, fell ill with a sickness that caused him to forget his learning. As he would go through various sugyos, Rav Yosef would at times find himself simply confounded by his own teachings (which were often reiterated to him by his talmidim).
In our sugyah, Rav Yosef concluded of his own accord that it must be that what Shmuel said is this: The reason besulos get married on Wednesdays is so that if the husband has a claim he will immediately go to the Beis Din Thursday morning when they are in session, as the Mishna says. Why, though, can they not get married on Sundays, which would also afford the husband the opportunity to go to Beis Din immediately Monday morning if need be? That, explained Shmuel, is in order that Jewish girls should be given the appropriate honor due them of a properly prepared chasunah. Now, concluded Rav Yosef as being the correct version of Shmuel’s statement, that besulos can only get married on Wednesdays; if the twelve-month deadline arrives earlier in the week than that, the husband is still not yet obligated to support his kallah since it is not his fault that he has not yet consummated the marriage.
You know, it’s pretty incredible, this whole story with Rav Yosef. This is by no means the only place in Shas where this comes up. Numerous times we find that his talmidim will say to Rav Yosef something like “But, Rebbi, you yourself once told us…”, and Rashi explains that Rav Yosef forgot what he himself had said because of that illness he had gone through. His talmidim would oftentimes use his own statements – pre-illness – to refute statements of his that he made post-illness!
Now, think about that for a minute. Here you have a phenomenal talmid chacham. No less a personage than the individual who was requested to take over as the preeminent Rosh Yeshiva and Gadol Ha’Dor after the passing of his rebbi, Rav Yehudah (he deferred to his contemporary, Rabbah, and only assumed that mantle of supreme leadership after the latter’s passing). Not only that, but he was specifically known as the Sinai, the unmatched baki in every single corner of Torah. No-one could rival him in terms of his absolute mastery of kol ha’Torah kulah. And what happens? He gets an illness, the collateral damage of which leaves him bereft of that Torah knowledge that so defined his very essence.
Imagine going through such an ordeal. Who would not become completely and utterly broken by such a thing? Losing your most precious possession; that which defines who and what you are, and comprises your entire life’s work! Wouldn’t any normal person be overcome by a sense of utter hopelessness and fall into an inescapable dungeon of depression?
It is pretty safe to assume that Rav Yosef in fact suffered terribly from his ordeal. He likely became extremely disheartened and deflated. For all we know, he may have well contemplated just giving up and remaining a former shell of himself. Shivrei Luchos. As we see from this Gemara and many others like it, though, Rav Yosef ultimately decided to push hard and regain whatever he could from his lost treasure.
So what was it? How did Rav Yosef manage to pull off such a herculean feat and beat out all the odds?
What comes to mind is a modern day paragon of someone who surpassed his natural limitations beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, zt”l. One of the individuals who came to be menachem aveil during the shivah shared with the family that, as a fellow sufferer of Parkinson’s Disease, he had the same doctor as the Rosh Yeshiva. He explained to them how, ever since his disease took on its more severe stages, he found it extremely difficult to make any type of significant accomplishments in life, particularly in his learning.
That’s understandable enough. After all, not everyone has the kochos ha’nefesh of a Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel. The real bombshell, though, was the last thing he told them.
“My doctor once revealed to me,” concluded the visitor, “that my own case of Parkinson’s is not nearly as severe as Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel’s. As a matter of fact, he told me that my case was about one tenth the severity of the Rosh Yeshiva’s.”
That Rav Nosson Tzvi was forever pushing himself to grow, strive, build, and accomplish – that was patently obvious to anyone who would just watch him go to the Beis Medrash and daven. But just how hard he was having to push, well, that the vast majority of us clearly had not the slightest inkling!
So what was his secret? Was it just that his neshama was so much greater than everyone else’s? That is probably true. But that doesn’t change the fact that there was definitely something about him from which we can all gain a lot of practical encouragement.
Rav Nosson Tzvi once told someone as follows. “Sometimes, it comes time for me to go say my shiur klali and I feel that I absolutely have no strength to do so. So what do I do? I say to myself, ‘Well, can you at least sit up? Do you have enough energy to do that?’ When I realize that I do in fact have enough koach to sit up, I do so. Then I ask myself if I have enough strength to stand up, and upon realizing that I do, I stand up. After that, when I realize that I have enough koach to walk to the door, I do that. And so on and so forth, until I finally make it to the Beis Medrash to give the shiur klali.”
Now, don’t think that by doing this Rav Nosson Tzvi was always able to surpass any and all limitations. Were that the case, I don’t think I would bother writing all of this in this column as it wouldn’t carry much practical bearing for the rest of us mortal men. Sometimes, it is crucial to realize, Rav Nosson Tzvi actually did not manage to do everything he desired. I was once present at a shiur klali where Rav Nosson Tzvi stopped in the middle. In an extremely weak voice, he informed the olam that he simply had no strength to go on. And that was that. The shiur klali came to an abrupt, unexpected end.
So what is the point of all of this? For me, and I think for most of us, the point is not what Rav Nosson Tzvi actually managed to accomplish, but the attitude which was the secret behind those accomplishments. For all we know, there may have been many, many times that all he managed to muster was sitting up on his bed and that’s it. Who knows how many times he actually could not follow through with whatever it was he wanted to do at the moment because he really did not have even an ounce of strength left to just stand up, or walk to the door! So why would he do it? Why would he force himself to sit up – which for him we can only imagine how excruciatingly painful such a movement could be – when he knew very well that he may not make it to the door?
The answer, of course, is that he felt, “I have to try.” But I think it goes deeper than that. It is not just that he viewed sitting up as an effort at trying to go give the shiur klali, but that that effort of sitting up in of itself was inherently valuable, because, at that moment, that is what he was capable of. In other words, it was not just as a potential heichi-timtzah for a mitzvah that he did so, but as a mitzvah in of itself. If this is all I can do, then this is what I will give to the Ribbono shel Olam.
Knowing the talent and greatness of which you are inherently capable while feeling jailed from realizing that potential can generate a very depressing feeling. Life is not simple. Sometimes things happen that seem to chain us down and obstruct our ability to actualize our own, latent potential. It can be physical illness, mental illness, or a host of other circumstances and obstructions. Whatever it is, it can be really difficult and painful to deal with knowing how much you really could be doing, but not actually being able to do it. It can really get a person down. So what can a person do to garner a sense of encouragement so that he won’t throw in the towel and give up?
The key, I think, is realizing that it is not natural talent and obvious accomplishment for which we were put into this world. Adam l’amal yulad. We are here to work, to struggle. To strive to do whatever we can in whatever given moment and circumstance we find ourselves. If that means just sitting up in bed, or having to bear the embarrassment of having one’s own talmid teach you who used to be the premier Torah expert, then it is precisely that effort and act of perseverance which is most precious in Hashem’s eyes. Because, after all, it is that for which we are here. To do our best to work through the struggle of life. When we realize that, we gain an inestimably important awareness that every single little bit of effort that we put forth to do whatever we can to serve Hashem – particularly when we find it difficult to do so – really represents the finest expression of human accomplishment that could possibly be. When you realize that, you realize that it really, truly is more than worth the ongoing struggle and the effort.
Rabbi Yehoshua Berman serves as the Rosh Kollel of Kollel Reshet HaDaf in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. In addition to having authored Reflections on the Parsha, Rabbi Berman regularly delivers shiurim on Halacha and Hashkafa, writes comprehensive chazara questions Daf Inspired – Culling Gems of Inspiration from the Daf, by Rabbi Yehoshua Berman(in Hebrew) for the advanced Daf Yomi learner, and weekly words of inspiration from the Parsha. Rabbi Berman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.