by Daneal Weiner
Rav Moshe Wolfson on
The Megilla Ruth opens, “And it was in the days when the judges judged.” Our Rabbis explain, “And it was in the days when the judges were judged!” The times were filled with tremendous chutspah. When a Jewish high school education was enough wisdom to belittle any Rabbi and every Rosh Yeshiva. Not only this, later in the Megilla it says, “[Boaz] went to lie down at the end of the grain pile.” Our Rabbis explain the times were rampant with immorality. Boaz slept by his pile so his grains would not be stolen for payment for the prostitutes. These lowly signs of those times, canonized in a book of our Written Tradition, our Rabbis in Gemorah Sota saw would be the signs of the times of the footsteps of the Mashiach. Indeed the Megilla ends with, “And Jesse begot David.” David, who would become King David, who would be the progenitor of the messianic line.
For a better understanding we need to go back to a Gemorah in Berachos:
Our Rabbis taught: Ma’aseh b’talmid echad- There was an incident with one student- who came before Rabbi Yehoshua and asked, “Is the evening prayer an obligatory command or an electoral command?” Rabbi Yehoshua answered, “Electoral.” The student came before Rabbi Gamliel and asked the same question. Rabbi Gamliel answered, “Obligatory.” The student said, “Rabbi Yehoshua said it was an electoral command.” Rabbi Gamliel said, “Wait for the Shield Bearers [Torah Scholars] to come to the beis hamidrash and then ask your question again.”
When the Scholars arrived the questioner arose and asked his question again, “Is the evening prayer an obligatory command or an electoral command?” Rabbi Gamliel replied, “It is obligatory.” He turned to the Scholars, “Is there anyone here who disputes this ruling?” Rabbi Yehoshua answered, “No.” Rabbi Gamliel said to Rabbi Yehoshua, “But in your name it was reported to me a ruling of electoral. Stand on your feet and let them testify against you.” Rabbi Yehoshua arose and said, “Were I alive and the questioner dead the living may contradict the dead. But since I am alive and he is alive how can the living contradict the living.” [In other words, he confessed to his ruling.] Rabbi Gamliel then continued to lecture with Rabbi Yehoshua remained on his feet.”
Some background information is useful. The time period is shortly after the destruction of the Temple. Millions of Jews have been killed. Jerusalem is in ruins. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai managed to save the Scholars of Yavneh and the family of the Nasi. The great Sanhedrin had been lead by two Torah giants, one placed as Nasi and one placed as Av Beis Din. Now, in Yavneh, the order of the Sanhedrin is no more. Capitol cases, for example, may not be tried. But the 72 greatest Torah Sages formed a court to restore Torah order to the Jewish people. Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh, grandson of Rabbi Gamliel the Elder, was a descendant of the house of David and Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai installed him as Nasi. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was Av beis Din till he passed away, about 8 years after the Destruction. Rabbi Yehoshua, an older colleague of Rabbi Gamliel’s, filled the role of Av Beis Din. The position of the Nasi was higher than the position of the Av Beis Din even though the Av Beis Din was an elder to the Nasi. We saw Rabbi Yehoshua, the Av Beis Din, would not contradict the Nasi publicly. But due to demoralized state of the Jewish people, Rabbi Gamliel felt the prestige of the Nasi should be protected even more. The Av Beis Din should not contradict his ruling privately either.
Getting back to the Gemorah, protocol was that a Sage who stood up to speak did not sit down till the Nasi gave him permission to do so. Rabbi Yehushua had been left standing.
“After a while the other Sages began murmuring over the disrespect being shown to Rabbi Yehoshua. They said, ‘How long will Rabbi Gamliel continue to distress Rabbi Yehoshua? On Rosh Hashanah last year he distressed him. Regarding Rav Tsaddok and his first born he distressed him. And now again he distresses him. Let us depose him!”
The Scholars asked amongst themselves, “Who shall we place in his stead?” It would not be appropriate to promote Rabbi Yehoshua since he is involved in the matter. Should we appoint Rabbi Akivah? Better not to. Should Rabbi Gamliel cried out to Hashem, the Heavenly court might judge Rabbi Akivah to death. Having descended from converts he does not have the merit of righteous forefathers. Let’s appoint Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya for he is wise, wealthy and a 10th generation from Ezra.”
The Gemorah explains, he is wise to be able to handle the position. He is wealthy to be able to deal with the Caesar, need be. And as a descendant of Ezra he has the merit of righteous forefathers.
The Gemorah continues: They came to Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya and proposed the position. He said he will first discuss it with his household. He asked his wife what she thought. She said maybe they will stand you down as well? He said, “Let a person use a precious glass cup one day and let it break the next.” She expressed another concern. “You have no white hairs.” You do not have the look befitting a lecturer. Will you be taken seriously or bring shame to yourself and the position? That day Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya was 18 years old. A miracle was performed for him and 18 rows of hair in his beard turned white. Regarding this he was quoted as saying, “I am like a 70 year old man.”
Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya accepted the position. The Gemorah goes on to tell the changes he instituted in the beis hamidrash. Whereas Rabbi Gamliel only allowed the sincerest of students in, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya removed the guard at the door and allowed all to enter. Many benches were added to accommodate the new crowds. One opinion says 400 benches were added. Another says 700 benches were added.
The entire tractate of Eduyos was taught on that day! Anywhere in the Talmud where it says, “on that day” is referring to the day Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya was Nasi.
Needless to say, Rabbi Gamliel, even having been deposed, remained in the beis hamidrash just the same. As we find in the Gemorah, “On that day Judah, the Amonite came to beis hamidrash and asked if he could convert. Rabbi Gamliel said no. Rabbi Yehoshua said yes. Rabbi Gamliel challenged him saying, “Does it not say [in the Torah], ‘The Amonite and Moabite may not enter the assembly of Hashem.’?” Rabbi Yehoshua responded saying Sancherib, king of Ashur, has entirely mixed all people of all lands. Therefore, a man coming from the land of Amon is most likely not a descendant of an Amonite. The Rabbis allowed the man to convert. Rabbi Gamliel said to himself, “If this is so, I most go and apologize to Rabbi Yehoshua.” The Rabbis then reinstated Rabbi Gamliel although not entirely deposing Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya. In conclusion of this entire episode the Gemorah says, Who was that student [who asked regarding the status of the evening service]? It was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was amongst the greatest of the Tannaic Sages. He was certainly far from being an ‘instigator.’ Why did this whole unpleasant episode evolve from his question?
Why didn’t the Gemorah tell us Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s name in the first place?
And why DID we get the name of Judah, the Amonite. All we cared about was him being a Amonite. His name is totally meaningless?
What was it about this Amonite question that Rabbi Gamliel suddenly saw to ask forgiveness from Rabbi Yehoshua?
To begin to understand all this we need to first recognize something special about Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
The holiday of Chanukah is one that even irreligious Jews have a strong connection to. Because whereas with Shabbos and other holidays Israel needs to elevate themselves to the spirit of the day, on Chanukah the spirit of the day comes down to Israel. On Lag b’Omer, the yahrtseit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai we see a similar phenomenon with Chanukah. On Lag b’Omer 100’ of 1000’s of Jews from every walk of life converge on the resting place of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai to participate in the celebration of the light of Torah which Rabbi Shimon released into the world. Rabbi Shimon’s soul reaches out to and touches from the greatest to the simplest of souls of Israel. It is so in our day. How much more so was it so in his day.
Other great Rabbis would be akin to the other holidays. They are on such a lofty level that portions of Israel just have no connection to them. But only their time-realm counterparts, these Rabbis have free choice and can come to sin. When they do they drop from their lofty state. Now they can connect with once distant souls and as the Sage elevates himself, he brings the lowly souls up with him.
And sometimes Hashem will cause such a righteous person to sin specifically for the purpose of doing tshuva for himself and affecting it for a number of others.
With this in mind let’s look again at the Gemorah. What is the question, whether the evening prayers is obligatory or electoral? Why doesn’t the question apply for Morning and afternoon services as well? Because the three services correspond to the three Temples. The morning and afternoon prayers correspond to the first and second Temples, which had existed and, due to our abundance of sins, were destroyed. But having already been part of the make-up of Israel obliges us in their corresponding prayers. The evening service is for the Temple that will be. We look towards it, anticipate it, hopefully act towards it, but does it have the force the previous two have. Is its corresponding prayer obligatory as well or electoral?
Every generation has a Jew with the potential to be the Mashiach. Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi was that Jew in his day. In his time the 9th of Av, the day of mourning of the fall of the Temples was to come out on Shabbos. We can not fast on Shabbos. The question rose in the beis hamidrash what happens to the day of mourning? The Rabbis wanted to push it off till Sunday. Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi said, once it’s pushed off it’s pushed off for good! No more day of mourning!
Don’t think all Rabbi Yehudah was trying to do was make the Jewish calendar a little less gloomy. As a descendant of the house of King David he was trying to bring Mashiach! He was hoping all the Rabbis would agree that the time for Mashiach was at hand and by ending the mourning that would herald in the celebration. But they did not agree that the time was right. It would have been possible but it would not have been right.
Rabbi Gamliel, the grandfather of Rabbi Yehudah, had similarly felt in his generation that the Messianic era was at hand. When he was asked the question about ma’ariv, he was not just responding to a question. He was attempting to implement the reality. Is it only the reality which effects mitsvos? Mitsvos effect reality! Let’s bring the third Temple into reality with the declaration of maariv as an obligatory prayer! The other Rabbis did not agree.
Why did they not agree with Rabbi Gamliel nor with his grandson Rabbi Yehudah, to bring Mashiach. Because bringing Mashiach before its time means leaving passengers at check-in while the plane takes off. Levilti yidach mimenu nidach- no one will be banished from Him. We speak very often of the in-corruptible spark within every Jews from which they will return to Hashem. But the return has to take place! The Mashiach will not take off until every Jews is on board.
Although [Rabbi] Shimon bar Yochai must have been very young in the presence of Rabbi Gamiel, and had not reached the level of the great Tannaic Sage he was to become, never-the-less he was aware of his connection to all the souls of Israel, great and lowly, and of the greatness of Rabbi Gamliel. If Rabbi Gamliel would fall from his status he would be able to elevate a tremendous number of souls with his return. Shimon bar Yochai = 692 = Levilti yidach mimenu nidach. Using Rabbi Gamliel the young Shimon bar Yochai hoped to gather in all the distant souls.
As lost as some souls can get, there are still some lost even farther! Some souls that the Yovel- when all souls return to their roots- does not effect. Because the Yovel is when the majority of Israel’s inhabitants are in their land. Some souls not included in the category of her inhabitants. In fact, they are even forbidden from coming into the assembly of Hashem!
Ruth was such a soul. She was a descendant of Moav regarding whom Hashem said is not a welcome convert to Judaism. But Hashem is thinking thoughts so that Levilti yidach mimenu nidach- no one will be banished from Him.
There was a man named Elimelch. The Midrash says he was called such because he used to say “Eli will come Malchut”- To me will come the kingdom. He saw in himself the seeds of the kingdom of Israel and the messianic line. He had a wife Naomi. The letters of Naomi are the acronym for Mekabeits Nidchei Amo Yisrael- [Who] gathers in the lost of the nation of Israel. They had two sons, Machlone and Kilyon. All four of these noble members of Israel would descend, not just physically but spiritually, to the lowly ranks of the Moavites in order to draw out and bring back with them the lost souls of Moav.
Due to poor choices not all of them would do tshuva. But their Jewish souls would easily return. There was one lost soul in Moav’s that could not. Ruth. Elimelech, Machlone and Kilyon died but Naomi returned and she brought Ruth with her. Naomi sent Ruth to Boaz and Boaz, for the first time in Jewish history, recognized that Hashem’s anger against Moav was against its men, not against its women. Ruth was recognized as a true convert to Judaism. Boaz performed the Leverite marriage with her.
Elsewhere we’ve explained that should a man die childless, if his wife marries his brother or kin it is a second chance for the deceased’s soul. Ruth’s husband was reincarnated as her and Boaz’s child. This is why the Megillah writes, “The neighborhood women gave him [the child] a name saying, ‘A son is born to Naomi.’” Because her dead son was just reincarnated via Ruth. Elimelech, through this son, was indeed to give rise to the monarchy of Israel and the messianic line. As Hashem promised in Isaiah 54:7, “V’rachamim gedolim akabitsaich”- with great mercy I will gather you in = 606 = Ruth.
Just as Rabban Gamliel was temporarily removed from his “throne,” just as Shlomo was removed before him as was David removed before him. They all had the potential to be Mashiach bu the time wasn’t right. Instead their potential was used to decend to the lowly spiritual levels of Israel to bring the lowly spirits back up. They did not merit heralding the Mashiach but Hashem let them merit bringing his time that much closer.
As soon as Rabbi Gamliel was disposed, the beis hamidrash doors were opened and some say 400 hundred benches were added. Some say 700. What is undisputed is that thousands of Jews had become elevated to an place they could not reach before.
And “on that day” Judah the Amonite came to the beis hamidrash as well. It can only be his unsacred body housed a sacred soul for his name is forever mentioned amongst the great Rabbis and Sages of the Talmud. And in Rav Wolfson’s inimitable fashion, he says the milui gematria of Judah = the milui gematria of Yovel! [I haven’t figured it out yet. That’s your homework.]
Centuries after Boaz found a way to allow the women of Moav and Amon into the assembly of Israel, so to did Rabbi Yehoshua find a way to let the men in. Wherever the soul was lost to, Levilti yidach mimenu nidach.
When Rabbi Gamliel saw all that happened through his being deposed he understood the it was not time for Mashiach so he went to apologize to Rabbi Yehoshua. Only now, with all recognized the hand of Hashem does the Gemorah say the student who started it all was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. So that no one should think, G-d forbid, before come to this conclusion that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was acting impudently. But, anyone with seeing eyes would have noticed right away that the Gemorahs introduction to the entire episode, “Ma’aseh b’talmid echad”- There was an incident with one student = 914 = Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
We’ve said many times that space and time and soul are all related. All that we’ve seen regarding the above individuals corresponds to places and times as well. The three weeks of mourning the destruction, between the 17th of Tamuz and the 9th of Av, during which weddings are forbidden is the corresponding time which is not “allowed into the assembly of Hashem.” And yet the Chasam Sofer does a meticulous accounting and says that the night Boaz allowed Ruth into the assembly of Israel was the 17th of Tamuz, allowing a corresponding time ‘in’ as well. [Rav Wolfson footnotes that although not marrying during these past days of the S’fira it is for an entirely different reason.]
Staying within the framework of time, we had been climbing our way out of the cold wintry months of Judgement and are reaching the peak. So time will turn and begin to descend towards that intensely mournful day, the 9th of Av. It is only having peaked with Shavuos and the re-receiving of the Torah that we will be able to be cast down from our “thrones” and descend, all the while with the expressed purpose of elevating ourselves back again, bringing with those souls which can not make it on their own.
The Megillah starts with “And it was in the days when the judges were judged!” but it ends with Yishai holid es David- Yishai gave birth to David. Even in the face of unprecedented chutzpah and immorality did the messianic line come into being.
No one need despair over the spiritual state of Israel. Even as we turn the corner and not know what difficulties we will face, we do know, we must know that it is all for our good. But there is still plenty of choice in our hand. Machlone and Kilyone descended and died of their sins. Rabbi Gamliel descended and repented and was reinstated. The choice is ours. We have our Torah in hand. Eits chayim he l’machazikim bah- She is the Tree of Life for those who hang onto her.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Somayach.