A Bissel Torah – 05/13/2020

During this time of the counting of the omer, our tradition teaches that we mourn the death of 24000 students of Rabbi Akivah, from a mysterious plague. We are now in the 34th day of the count, and I thought I would share with you a strange story about one of Rabbi Akivah’s students.

There is a story in Leviticus Rabbah (21:8) about Rabbi Hanina ben Hakinai and Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai, who went to study Torah with Rabbi Akiva in B’nai B’rak, and stayed there for thirteen years. The two rabbis had different patterns regarding their families. R’ Simeon ben Yohai would regularly ask for news about his family when messengers would go back and forth, so he was aware of what was going on in his household. R Hanina ben Hakinai, however, did not seek out information, and did not know what was happening in his house. After many years without communication, his wife sent word to him. She said that his daughter was now of an age to be married, and he should come back to marry her off. So he left R. Akiva and went home. When he arrived, everything was changed! The roads in his city had changed so much that he could not find his house. Dejected, he sat down by the bank of the river, trying to figure out what his next steps would be. At that moment he heard a few young women talking, and he heard one saying, “Daughter of Hakinai, fill your pitcher and let’s go!” He thought to himself, “It is clear that this girl is from my family!” He followed her from afar, and entered his house unannounced. His wife was sitting and sifting flour. When she saw him, her soul fled her body. Rabbi Hanina ben Hakinai said to the Holy One, “Master of the Universe, this poor woman – is this to be her reward?” He pleaded for mercy for her and her soul returned to her body.

There are many ways of reading this story, so I will share one of the ways in which I read it. This story is of the recurrent theme of men who leave their families to study Torah. The stories seem to convey, at a first reading, that these rabbis who were not present for their families were praiseworthy. Yet there is always some hints in the text that point otherwise. In this story, Rabbi Hanina is so uninterested that he doesn’t know what is happening to his family, so much so that his wife has to remind him that it is time to marry his daughter off. He comes back, it seems, expecting all to be the same, and doesn’t even think that thirteen years would be a long time for a town to remain exactly as it was when he left. He cannot find his way home. He sits by a river, doesn’t recognize his daughter, and relies on following a young woman who is called not by his name (daughter of Hanina), but by his father’s name (daughter of Hakinai). He entered his house unannounced – and maybe because his wife was so startled, either by seeing a total stranger inside her house or because she was so surprised that he finally showed up, that she died. Through God’s mercy, listening to his plea, she revived. Hardly a picture of someone who should be followed…

Of course we can read this story in many ways. Rabbi Hanina could be praised for his persistence and contribution to Torah study, for devising a clever plan to find his home, and for praying for his wife’s recovery in such a devout way that she was resurrected. There are many ways for us to read the same text and come to very different conclusions. As it is said in the Talmud, These and those are the words of the living God. How do you read this text? I hope you grapple with this text and come up with your interpretation, and a good lesson learned.

Rabbi Lia Bass