There’s a story in the Babylonian Talmud, in Tractate Yevamot 96b, that cut close to home when I studied it. It’s a brief episode but it addresses modern interpersonal issues. It features Rabbi Elazar, who goes to the beit midrash (study hall) and quotes halachah (Jewish law). However, Elazar makes a big mistake – he doesn’t attribute this teaching to Rabbi Yohanan, who taught it. This news gets back to Yohanan. And it doesn’t sit well.
Now, the backstory. Rabbi Yohanan, according to Rabbi Dan Ornstein’s My Jewish Learning summary online, is seen as “dangerously oversensitive” and quick to anger. Yohanan also apparently had (at least) 10 sons and they all died. He is so sad that, in Tractate Berakhot 9b, he is carrying around a tooth (or a bone?) from his youngest child who died.
Back to the current story: rabbis Ami and Asi, Yohanan’s students, try to calm him. They say anger isn’t good and offer a story about Elazar and Rabbi Yosei, who get so angry with each other that they tear a Torah. Yohanan becomes angrier, because they are comparing Yohanan and Yosei (teachers) with a student (Elazar).
Along comes Rabbi Yaakov bar Idi, who takes a different approach. He explains that everyone knows that all of Elazar’s teachings come from Rabbi Yohanan, who is, in their time, “our iteration of Moses.” In fact, “Everyone knows Elazar is quoting you, even when he doesn’t quote you by name. You have nothing to fear.”
This diplomacy soothes Yohanan, who then corrects Ami and Asi, pointing out this was a great way to manage the situation.
There was so much in this story that affected me. First, there’s the matter of, in modern terms, “copyright.” Everybody deserves credit for their work. It’s not right to just claim somebody else’s ideas, images or innovations as your own.
There’s also the issue of context. Rabbi Yohanan had great personal tragedy and loss. People with this much trauma might be sensitive or angry – and that’s entirely understandable.
It’s also awful to try and “teach” your instructor through the example of one of their poorly behaved students. It disregards Yohanan’s wisdom and authority. Recognizing this trauma and honouring elders means treating them with respect instead of talking down to them, as rabbis Ami and Asi did.
The talmudic story continues: the teachings of a great person speak to us from beyond the grave. Yohanan’s legacy is his teaching of Jewish law and Torah. It’s erased if Elazar fails to acknowledge where it came from. When a person loses their children and hopes that his students will help his name live on? It’s demoralizing and infuriating when his students “erase” him instead.
OK, yes, but this is just an old story, why did it matter to me?
As an author, I care about copyright issues. Most authors don’t earn more than, at most, a dollar when each book is sold. Most writers (myself included) cannot make a living on their books or other writing. So, seeing bootlegged downloads of my books on the internet is infuriating – it’s just another way to “erase” a person’s value and intellectual property.
Then, there’s the issue of our personal story and how it affects our work. We’ve all known people who’ve suffered losses or struggled. Rabbi Yohanan is a good example. Perhaps some learn from this suffering and gain wisdom. Yet Yohanan’s students condescend to him and belittle his anger because “he might tear a Torah” like one of his students? This is not consolation. It’s demeaning.
Rabbi Ornstein uses the word “flattery” to describe what Yaakov bar Idi did, saying that everyone knew Elazar got everything he knew from Yohanan. I think that’s the wrong take. In trying to soothe Yohanan, Yaakov bar Idi gives him respect and credit. This shows how much our work means to us. As a good teacher, when calm, Yohanan made the experience a lesson for his other students. In other words, everything is Torah – we can learn how to be better people from any situation, no matter how upsetting or demeaning.
Occasionally, work situations pop up that “put us in our place” or give us context about what we do. Recently, I opened up my work email to discover I’d lost seven-plus months of emails from my inbox. Now, of course, an organized person would have addressed every issue, filed every email, and had an empty inbox. I hang on to things, I don’t spend enough time on tidying, and I keep things so I can think about them. Mea culpa.
After trying every technical solution available, it became clear that those emails were gone forever. No idea what happened. I had to let go of the panic and the upsetting situation. I hope my work has value, and that people will get in touch if they want to work with me.
Losing my emails this way felt like being erased. Middle-aged women, who are also caregivers, often earn less for the hours we work. We earn nothing for the hours of household labour we do to take care of those around us. It’s natural to feel angry about this. Rabbi Yohanan’s anger reminds that we all want to be acknowledged, have our work valued and respected. It’s not hypersensitive or unreasonable to want to leave a legacy to others. Taking on someone else’s teaching without attribution, as Elazar did, is the erasure that happens to many of us, and Rabbi Yohanan shows us that anger is a human response. Yaakov ben Idi suggests that acknowledging his teacher with respect is the compassionate way forward.
In a perfect world, my inbox would magically repopulate. I’d get offers from new clients showing my value as a writer and editor. My elementary school twins would suddenly acknowledge and thank me for all those meals and chauffeur moments. In reality, we all have to remind ourselves to reach out, acknowledge others, and treat them with respect. It doesn’t always happen automatically. Yohanan’s students valued his wisdom but they had to learn to acknowledge his work and recognize that his feelings mattered, too.
In this way, Rabbi Yohanan’s wisdom teaches us from beyond the grave. We must not erase others’ contributions. An erasure or even an empty inbox doesn’t make anybody’s life fulfilling. We must validate and value each other.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.