What would you do if you were taking a swim and suddenly a known criminal leapt in right next to you? He is not only a known thief, bandit and gang leader, he is handsome, big and strong. Would you try to escape? Reason with him? Would you try to ignore him?
The Talmud relates such a story. The person swimming in the Jordan River was was one of the greatest sages of all time, Rabbi Yohanan. He was also very handsome. The person who jumped in after him was named Reish Lakish. The story of their ensuing, immensely productive, sacred relationship and its immensely tragic end is retold and finely analyzed by Ari Kahn in his recently published The Crowns on the Letters (Ktav, 2021).
Apparently, the gang leader who jumped into the river mistook the beautiful R. Yohanan, whose features were somewhat blurred by the river water, for a woman. Reish Lakish’s intentions were less than chivalrous.
Of all the things that R. Yohanan could have done, this is what he did do. He said to Reish Lakish: “You should use your strengths for Torah.”
Not only that, R. Yohanan said: “Your beauty should be for women. In fact, if you repent, I will give you my sister in marriage, and she is even more beautiful than I.”
So it was. Reish Lakish agreed. He repented, married R. Yohanan’s sister and became one of the greatest sages of the Talmud. The discussions and debates between these two — R. Yohanan and Reish Lakish — fill the pages of the Talmud.
An unlikely story, you might say, but it is verified by another story, an immensely tragic one.
One day a dispute arose in the study hall about a sword, a knife, a dagger, a spear, a hand-saw and scythe. At what stage of their manufacture can they become ritually impure? When their manufacture is finished. And when is that?
R. Yohanan and Reish Lakish disagreed.
We have here a seemingly technical discussion that touches nothing of human emotion and relationship. R. Yohanan concedes to Reish Lakish. He says to Reish Lakish, “A robber understands the craft of robbery.”
Reish Lakish is deeply wounded. He says, “What good has my repentance benefited me? When I was a robber I was called master and here I am called master.”
R. Yohanan is deeply wounded. He answers back, “You benefited because I helped bring you under the wings of the Divine presence.”
Reish Lakish fell ill.
His wife, R. Yohanan’s sister, begged her brother to forgive him; otherwise her children will be orphans and she will be a widow.
Reish Lakish died.
R. Yohanan was plunged into grief.
The sages tried to comfort Reish Lakish by reassuring him that his rulings were correct, but this only made his grief worse because he missed the cogent challenges to his reasoning by Reish Lakish. R. Yohanan loved Reish Lakish because he could mount a fierce, well-reasoned attack against his thinking.
The more R. Yohanan is told his rulings are correct, the more he rends his garments and weeps. “Where are you, O son of Lakisha; where are you, O son of Lakisha!” R. Yohanan cries until his loses his mind.
The other rabbis prayed for him.
But he too died.
The students of both were bereft.
What happened here?
What seems to have happened is that R. Yohanan spoke hurtfully and with great disrespect to his disciple, brother-in-law and colleague, reminding him of his sordid past. Whereupon, Reish Lakish went into a tailspin of his own; he couldn’t take being reminded of his past and left his new world of Torah and left the world altogether.
Kahn observes that one well known teaching of R. Yohanan casts doubt on this apparent reading of the immensely tragic end of their relationship.
R. Yohanan taught that if repentance is motivated by love of G-d, a penitent’s past sins are accounted as merits (Y. Pe’ah 1:1).
For R. Yohanan, pious since his birth, this was easy to say. For Reish Lakish, it took uncounted lonely days and nights of internal struggle to overcome his past and focus on Torah study. He had to reject all that he was and all that he did.
Look back at R. Yohanan’s initial statement to Reish Lakish in the Jordan River: “You should use your strengths for Torah.” R. Yohanan was telling him: “I know your strengths, your leadership, your determination — and I know you can transform yourself.”
Did R. Yohanan overestimate the difficulty in totally uprooting one’s past? When R. Yohanan told Reish Lakish, “A robber understands the craft of robbery,” he may have been saying this:
“I know you have used your strengths for Torah. And one of those strengths is your knowledge of weaponry, which I do not have. So I will concede to you on the technical question as to when the manufacture of weapons is completed.”
In hearing R. Yohanan’s words very differently, Reish Lakish may have been saying:
“It is well and good to say that all of one’s past sins and crimes will be accounted to a penitent as merits. But it is not so easy even for a Torah scholar as accomplished as I have become to leave behind my past utterly. You simply needed to say, ‘You should use your strengths for Torah,’ but I was the one who had to transform myself. And as far as I had come, I had not completed the job. You took me back to my sordid past.”
We have here another possible reading of the tragic exchange between R. Yohanan and Reish Lakish.
As to whether it is a definitive reading, we shall never know, especially since there is another incident in the Talmud that seems to indicate that R. Lakish did use all of his strengths for Torah.
The Talmud records:
“Rav Isi was captured by a gang. R. Yohanan said, ‘Prepare the shrouds to wrap the dead’ [i.e., there is no hope for him]. Reish Lakish said, ‘I will kill or be killed [to secure his release]; I will go and return him with my strength.’ He went and negotiated [his release] and brought him back. [Reish Lakish] said to the kidnappers], ‘Come to the elder and he will pray for you.’ They came before R. Yohanan, who said, ‘What you had in your hearts to do to him should happen to you.’They didn’t manage to get to Apipsirus before they all perished.”
Ari Kahn comments:
In this remarkable passage, we witness the fusion of the highwayman-turned-sage: Rather than rejecting his past, Reish Lakish uses it — not to take life, but to preserve life. This act of heroism is undertaken by Reish Lakish, who held human life in great esteem, and not by Reish Lakish the criminal and murderer. The robber would have had no interest in a mission with no “payoff,” but the rabbi could not have succeeded in accomplishing this mission had his reputation as a dangerous criminal not preceded him. . . .
Such is teshuvah, motivated by love of G-d: It allows the sinner to transform himself, and the sinful behavior of the past to become something positive when it is given new context and purpose. . . . Had Reish Lakish never learned to use a sword, had he not known how robbers think and act, Rav Isi never would have been liberated. Rav Isi was saved due to Reish Lakish’s misspent youth, which, in retrospect, became the foundation for future meritorious action.
I dwell on teshuvah now, after Yom Kippur. For Yom Kippur and the High Holiday season to be meaningful, its themes need to occupy us into the year, well after the High Holiday season is over.
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