Rabbi Yaakov
Rabbi Yaakov Haber
May 22, 2009
“Rabbi Yaakov said: One who walks on the road while reviewing (a Torah lesson) but interrupts his review and exclaims, “how beautiful is this tree (ilon), How beautiful is this plowed field (nir)’ – scripture considers it as if he bears guilt for his soul (Chayiv Benafsho)”
Let’s try to picture this scene. A person is walking with the earphones from his MP3 player in his ears, learning to a daf of Gemarah, when he stops and looks at a beautiful work of Hashem in nature – a tree or a field.  Rashi says that he stops to say a brocha.  It’s a spiritual experience.  Yet Rabbi Yaakov says that he’s Chayiv Benafsho – which means that’s he’s responsible for damaging his soul.  What has he done wrong?
The Mishnah seems to contrast two ways of nourishing one’s soul.  The first is learning Torah, which we all know is a good way to nourish one’s soul. The second way is to appreciate the beautiful work of Hashem in this world.  If we see how Hashem is the Creator and Sustainer of the world, we appreciate how orderly and harmonious it all is.  The ilon is a tree in a cultivated orchard that is pruned and used for its fruit.  The nir, as opposed to a sadeh, is a plowed and manicured field.  It is the picture of orderliness. Why does Rabbi Yaakov imply that this second way of nourishing one’s soul is harmful?
I used to be a Rabbi in Buffalo, New York, which is the location of Niagara Falls.  Niagara Falls is the biggest waterfall of its kind in the world.  There is a sign next to the falls that actually lists all the Avodah Zara’s that were located there.  One time Rabbi Sheinberg came to Buffalo to attend a wedding, and I picked him up at the airport.  I was driving past Niagara Falls, and he was learning in the front seat, and his Rebbetzen was in the back seat.  I didn’t know if I should ask him if he wanted to look at Niagara Falls.  It sounds a bit similar to our Mishnah. I asked him, “Would you like to see Niagara Falls”, and he said yes – actually, he said, “I’d love to see it.”  So we stopped the car, and his Rebbetzen marveled at the sight, saying what a Nase it was.  He responded, “Why is it a Nase?  Water comes to the edge of a mountain and falls off.  If it fell upwards, that would be a Nase.”  The next week I picked up Shlomo Carlbach from the airport, who was also there to attend a wedding, and we stopped at Niagara Falls.  He had a completely different reaction, and was singing and dancing.
To understand our Mishnah, it’s helpful to know who Rabbi Yaakov was. His full name was Rabbi Yaakov Karshai, and he was a teacher of Rebbe Yehuda Nasi, who wrote the Mishnais.  Rabbi Yaakov lived towards the end of the time of the Hadrian decrees.  The world of the Jews at that time seemed anything but orderly or fair.  The Temple had been destroyed, there were the Asarah Harugei Malchus, thousands and thousands of Talmidei Chachamim had been murdered by the Romans, and there had been the rise and fall of Bar Kochba, a failed Messiah.  It was similar to the Holocaust, and it was hard to see the orderliness of Hashem’s creation in the world.  Things looked chaotic. We also know that Rabbi Yaakov’s mother was the daughter of Alisha ben Avuya, known as Acher.  To understand the Mishnah better, it’s helpful to know about Alisha ben Avuya.
Alisha ben Avuya was a great Talmud Chachim.  He had a Yeshiva near Tiveria with many branches, and many talmidim. According to some, he was a Godol Hador. Then he went off the derech.  He went so far off, that he became a consultant to the Romans, telling them how to trick and catch the Jews. There are several Gemorahs that tells us about Alisha ben Avuya. 
One Gemorah says that Alisha saw a dog carrying the tongue of Chispus Metargeman.  The Metargeman was the person who explained a speech as it was being given, and Chispus’s words were known to be like pearls of wisdom.   Chispus was one of the Asarah Harugeh Malchus, and after he was killed, his body was thrown to dogs that devoured him, and one of them was carrying Chuspus’s tongue in its mouth.  Alisha exclaimed, “How can it be that the tongue that spoke such gems of wisdom is licking the dirt as it is being carried by a dog”.  This was so completely the opposite of being just and orderly, that there almost seems to be an order in how unfair it was.
Another Gemorah in Kiddushin 39 describes how Alisha saw a father ask his son to go up a tree to do the mitzvah of Shaluach Hacan, sending away a mother bird from its nest.  After the boy climbed up the tree and sent the mother bird away, he fell from the tree and died.  The Torah specifies that the reward for listening to one’s parents is long life, arichus hayomim, and there is a similar reward mentioned in the Torah for Shaluach Hacan.  So the father saw this as an opportunity to help his son get long life, and instead his son fell and died.  To Alisha ben Avuya, this also seemed to be the opposite of Hashem bringing orderliness and justice in this world.
A third Gemorah in Chagiga 14 describes Alisha’s bris.  His father, Avuya, was a wealthy man, and many Chochomim came to the bris.  It was a big house, and they found a side room during the Simcha, and they began to learn.  As they were learning, a fire came down from Shamayim.  Avuya at first was alarmed that his house was going to be damaged, but they assured him that this was not a destructive fire, but was a constructive fire.  Avuya was so impressed, that he pledged that his son would be supported in learning Torah all his life.  On the surface this seems to be a beautiful story of a person dedicating his son to a life of learning Torah.  But the Gemorah says that it was not “Leshma”, Torah for its own sake.  He wanted his son to learn Torah in order to bring fire down from Shemayim.  He was doing it with the expectation that there is an orderliness and predictability in the way learning Torah has a direct effect on this world, via Shamayhim, as shown by the way that it brought down fire. This implies that Alisha was taught Torah in a way to expect this orderliness.
A fourth Gemorah takes place even before Alisha’s briss.  It says that when Alisha’s mother was pregnant with him, she passed a place where incense of Avodah Zara was being burned.  She found the odor so pleasing and recuperative, that she got a Heter to partake of the incense of the Avodah Zara.  Chazal learn from this that it is important for a pregnant mother to be careful of what she experiences when she is pregnant.
Another Gemorah in Chagiga – and probably the best known – describes a meeting between four Gedolim of the time – Rabbi Akiva, Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, and Alisha ben Avuya.  This meeting took place towards the end of the Hadrian decrees, and they wanted to investigate why all those terrible things had happened to the Jews.  We see that Alisha was considered a Godol, otherwise he wouldn’t have been part of this group. The Germorah says that they went into the Pardes – which means an “orchard”. The Arizal says that they used their Kaballistic resources to delve into Pshat, Remez, Drosh, and Sod – whose first letters spell Pardes.  The Gemorah says that as a result of their investigative journey, Ben Assai died, Ben Zoma went crazy, Alisha ben Avuya ‘cut down the sapplings’, and Rabbi Akiva went in ‘shalame’- whole, and came out ‘shalame’- whole.  He came out the same as he had come in.  It’s through Rabbi Akiva that we get the Mesorah of Torah She Baal Peh
What does it mean when it says that Alisha ‘cut down the saplings’?  It’s using the metaphor of trees that go from this world to Shamayim  Alisha came to the conclusion that there is no connection between this world and Shamayim.  He cut down the connection between this world and Shamayim.  He concluded that this world does not make sense.  It is not an orderly place under the jurisdiction of Hashem. This caused him to go off the derech.  He had been taught in a way to expect this connection – that learning brings down a fire from Shamayim to this world.  The tragedies he had witnessed - such as the dog carrying the tongue of Chispus, the boy falling  from the tree, and the Roman oppression -  led him to believe that there is no connection - that this world is unfair, disorderly, and unconnected to Shamayim.
The continuation of the Gemorah in Chagaga describes a scene involving Rabbi Yaacov’s mother, the daughter of Alisha ben Avuya.  As a result of the oppression and destruction that happened during these times, economic survival wasn’t easy.  Rebbe Yehuda Hanasi was wealthy.  He couldn’t support all the Jews, but he took it upon himself to support the Chachamim.  This Gemorah says that Rabbi Yaacov’s mother came to Rebbe Yehuda Hanasi to ask him for financial support.  He asked her who she was.  She answered that she was the daughter of Acher.  Can you imagine giving such a reference when applying to a school or a Kollel? Rashi says that she was Frum, perhaps a Baalas Tshuva.  The Gemorah says that after she said this, a fire came down from Shamayim and singed the chair that Rebbe was sitting on, and that he cried.  This seems to be the fire that Alisha’s father, Avuya, had seen at the bris, and had been the reason that he wanted his son to learn Torah.
Alisha ben Avuya was the teacher of Rebbe Meir.  Another Gemorah describes a conversation between Rebbe Meir and Alisha ben Avuya, when Alisha was riding on a horse and Rebbe Meir was walking alongside him.  It took place on Yom Kippur that fell on a Shabbos, right near where the Kodosh Kedoshim of the Bais Hamikdosh had stood.  This was the holiest day of the year, on the holiest day of the week, when everyone else was davening in shul, in a place where the Kohain Godol had performed the service that took place on Yom Kippur.  If Alisha wanted to ride a horse, there were many other places he could have gone – near Tiveria, or Tel Aviv for example.  What made him ride near the location of the holiest place where the Bais Hamikdosh had stood?  Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests that he was drawn to this place of holiness, whether he realized it or not, because there was something still good inside him.
The Gemorah in different places tries to understand how Rebbe Meir could have learned from Alisha ben Avuya, considering how off the deresh Alisha went.  In three different places the Gemroah compares Alisha to a date, a nut, and a pomegranate.  In the comparison to a date, Alisha is seen as having a good outside, but a bad inside, like the date’s inedible pit that is thrown away .  By comparing him to a nut, by contrast, he is seen as having a bad outside such as the nut’s shell, but having a good inside. By comparing him to a pomegranate, however, it implies that the good and bad were all mixed together.
The Gemorah in Kiddushin – that describes how Alisha saw the boy fall from a tree – concludes with words of Rabbi Yaakov.  He says that Erech Hayomim – the long life that is promised if we listen to our parents and do the Mitzvah of Shaluach Hacan – does not refer to this world. It refers to Olam Haba, the world to come.  He says, “Mitzvas be Hai Alma Leica”, Mitzvas are not for this world. The Gemorah then says that if Acher had heard his grandson Rabbi Yaacov say this reason, he would have understood his mistake and not gone off the derech.  I believe that it’s not the force of the idea that would have kept Alisha on the derech - that the reward for Mitzvahs is not for this world, but is only for Olam Haba.  Rather Alisha would have been most affected by seeing that his grandson, Rabbi Yaacov, had become a Talmid Chachom.  The power of the Torah in this world is to preserve Yiddishkeit through the generations.  It is said that there is no such thing as a third generation Reform Jew – that is, a person who says, I’m Reform, father was Reform, and my grandfather was Reform. The power of Torah and Mitzvas in this world is not necessarily to provide food and peace. It is in having Judaism extend through the generations, connecting grandfather to grandson.  I believe that the Gemorah is saying that if he saw this connection of the Torah to this world, that would have brought him back.
Our Mishnah contrasts two ways of nourishing the soul – learning Torah, or seeing Hashem’s presence in the orderliness of the world as evidenced by a tree in an orchard or a field with orderly plowed furrows.  Rabbi Yaakov is saying, don’t stop learning in order to see Hashem’s presence in an orderly world.  The world to our limited vision may seem chaotic, disorderly, and unfair, as it seemed after the tragedies that the Jewish people had lived through under the Romans, or after times such as the Holocaust.  Mitzvas be Hai Almah Leica, Mitzvas are not for this world.  If a person diverts his attention from Torah to try to find inspiration in the orderliness of this world, it might come to damage his soul, as had happened to Alisha ben Avuya, his grandfather.