Thursday, April 18, 2019

Siyum to Chullin 2019

Tractate Chullin ends with the following words:
אמר רב יוסף אלמלא דרשיה אחר להאי קרא כרבי יעקב בר ברתיה לא חטא מאי חזא איכא דאמרי כי האי מעשה חזא ואיכא דאמרי לישנא דרבי חוצפית המתורגמן חזא דהוה מוטלת באשפה אמר פה שהפיק מרגליות ילחוך עפר והוא לא ידע למען ייטב לך בעולם שכלו טוב ולמען יאריכון ימיך בעולם שכולו ארוך:
Rav Yosef said: Had Aḥer, literally Other, the appellation of the former Sage Elisha ben Avuya, interpreted homiletically this aforementioned verse: “That it may go well with you” (Deuteronomy 5:16), as referring to the World-to-Come, as did Rabbi Ya’akov, the son of his daughter, he would not have sinned. The Gemara asks: What did Aḥer see that led him to heresy? Some say that he saw an incident like this one witnessed by Rabbi Ya’akov, and some say that he saw the tongue of Rabbi Ḥutzpit the disseminator, which was cast in a garbage dump after he was executed by the government. Aḥer said: Will a mouth that produced pearls of wisdom lick the dust? But he did not know that the phrase “that it may be well with you” means in the world where all is well, and that the phrase “that your days may be long” is referring to the world that is entirely long.
As I have mentioned in previous siyumim, the end of the Mesechet is often a reflection on everything before it. So how does this final piece reflect back on Tractate Chullin?

The entirety of Chullin is focused on proper slaughter, on how to take the life of an animal in an ethical, spiritual, dignified way.

The last words of Chullin wonder if those very rules apply to God and celestial retinue when they take the lives of mankind. Elisha ben Avuyah, the famed Rabbi, is turned to heresy because of two tragic incidents.

One is the tongue of Huzpit the interpreter, which is found in the garbage dump. This of course is itself impossible to comprehend; the very interpreter, who can explicate so much to so many, suffers a demise that is inexplicable. Yet this indignity signals something larger: the Talmud (12a) says only a non-kosher animal would be tossed into the garbage dump. In metaphorical sense, it tells us the death of Hutzpit was not done in a kosher manner. (the other version of this story, in Kiddushin, has a pig dragging the tongue; again, only a non-kosher carcass was tossed to the animals, and here, to make the association stronger, it is specifically  the ultimate non-kosher animal carrying Hutzpit’s tongue)

The other case mentioned is found earlier in the passage:

“there was one whose father said to him: Climb to the top of the building and bring me fledglings; and he climbed to the top of the building and sent away the mother bird and took the offspring,thereby simultaneously fulfilling the mitzva to send away the mother bird from the nest and the mitzva to honor one’s parents, but as he returned he fell and died.”

Here too, the rules of Halacha are not observed by the Angel of Death. The mother bird must be sent before taking the child; but here, just within his father’s reach, the son’s life is taken away.

Clearly, the Talmud ends with the discomfiting reminder that the laws of ethical slaughter aren’t observed by the Angel of Death. And this puzzle has led Acher to leave the fold.

Despite this puzzle, the Talmud ends on a positive note: in the future, there will be a reckoning, and the accounts will be properly balanced. And to do this, they offer a powerful exhibit: Acher’s own grandson. Acher saw no future for a Jewish people that was pulverized by the brutal tortures of the Romans; yet his own grandson, Acher's very future, can explain the inexplicable, and maintain a sense of optimism about the future. But this salvation has nothing to do with death, ethical or otherwise, but rather comes from those who courageously hold on to life and faith.

No comments: