The Gemara (Shabbos 12b) tells us that one may not read by the light of a lamp on Shabbos, lest the reader tilt it to get a better flame and violate the prohibition of adding fuel to a fire (Hav’arah). RebbiYishmoel ben Elisha however declared, “I will read and take precautions not to tilt the lamp.” Once, RebbiNosson tells us, RebbiYishmoel did indeed read by the light of a lamp on Shabbos and ended up inadvertently tilting it. Subsequently he wrote in his journal, “I, Yishmoel ben Elisha did read on Shabbos (by the light of a lamp) and tilted the lamp. When the BaisHamikdash will be rebuilt I will bring a plump animal as a [korban] Chattas.”
It seems somewhat puzzling: Why it is relevant for the Gemara to detail what he had entered into his ledger? The topic at hand was to present an anecdote showing the need to follow the guidelines of Chazal who make decrees to stop us from sinning, and even the greatest precautions are not enough of a protection. But what RebbiYishmoel did afterwards for his own personal tikkun seems to be nongermane to the topic!
Perhaps we can understand this Gemara by addressing a problem in a Midrash (ShmosRabbah 6,1) relevant to this week’s parsha.
The Torah commands a Jewish king: “V’loyarbeh lo nashimv’loyassurmimenu” (Devarim 17, 17). He should not have too many wives lest they lead him astray. King Shlomo however said, “I will marry many wives and take the necessary precautions not to be led astray by them.” He then went ahead with his plan and married many wives. With that, the letter yud that starts the word “yarbeh” went and complained to Hashem that Shlomo was making him obsolete. Hashem assuaged the fears of the yud and assured it of his eternal relevance in the Torah. The question on this Midrash is pretty obvious. Why, of all the letters in the words of this mitzvah, was it specifically the yud that voiced its displeasure with King Shlomo ?
Perhaps we can say the following. Shlomo, Chazal tells us, did allow himself to be led astray by his wives. Where had his precautions gone wrong? Shlomo, the smartest man that had ever lived, obviously had analyzed every angle and every scenario. How was it possible that even he eventually stumbled?
The answer is that though man can actually see the present, he can only at best anticipate the future. And every so often the future comes up with something totally unexpected, something for which we are unprepared that causes our best laid plans to go astray. As the old yiddish saying goes: “Ah MentschTracht un G-t Lacht” – Man plans and G-d laughs.”
King Shlomo was “Chachammikol Adam” – the wisest of men, and Chazal say (Avos, 4,1) a truly wise person is one who is “roeheshanolad” – sees, adjusts and plans ahead for future events. Part of that wisdom is to realize that we don’t really know what the future beholds. And it was in this particular area that Shlomo stumbled. The passuk tells us (Melachim1, 11,4) that it was at the time of Shlomo’s old age his when his plethora of wives finally lead his heart somewhat astray Note that it was at an old age when this happened. Sure, he had taken all the precautions necessary for his youth, but his old age was uncharted waters, impossible through which to navigate ahead of time.
And that is why the yud of all letters stepped forward and protested. The yud is a prefix at the start of a verb that changes the tense to the future. King Shlomo failed to give the yud-prefixes of his life the necessary cautious respect they demand. Thus it was that letter yud of yarbeh that felt compromised and voiced its concerns.
The Gemara shares with us RebbiYishmoel’s entry so we can recognize the root of RebbiYishmoel’s mistake. After having tilted his lamp he realized he had not thought enough about the future. So with his entry he immediately rectified this by entering something pertinent to his future plans; ”Keshe’yibonehbaisHamikdash” – “When the BaisHamikdash will be rebuilt…..”
What a beautiful choice of an upcoming event to think about! This is every Yid’s future; this is our dream. This is a future we can take to the bank. Ani Ma’amin… This is a future about which we can coin a new Yiddishism: “Ah MentschTracht un G-t Trachtmit.”
Have a great Shabbos.
Rabbi Nosson Greenberg is rov of Khal Machzikei Torah of Far Rockaway, N.Y., and maggid shiur at Yeshiva of Far Rockaway.