The Rabbi Who Wanted to Sin: Kiddushin 81

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |
 

"Do not judge a person until you are in his place." (Avot 2:5) We unfortunately live in a very judgmental (Jewish) world where people are judged and looked down upon for all kinds of reasons - generally without even bothering to check if the "facts" are true. In a society where the thirty second sound bite - or shall we say 140 character tweet - is king is it any surprise there is little time or interest to develop nuance allowing views, often mistaken ones at that, to be formed much too quickly.

And in the very rare situations where we have all the data we need it is all but impossible to appreciate the circumstances that others are in and the multifaceted influences that shape the decision making process.

My father z"l would like to note how it is actually impossible to be in someone's place. If I go "to the place" of my friend then he is no longer there. In other words our Sages are advising us not to judge others period.

Ironically it is the most pious who are at risk at being the most judgmental. Mastering the ability to "veer from evil and do good" (Tehillim 34:15) they do not understand why others cannot do the same. Or to use a more mundane example, it is most rare that a superstar can become a good coach. It is hard for him to understand why the players keep making the same mistakes and lack the intuition for making the right play. It is generally the mediocre player, who worked so hard just to make the big leagues, who becomes the great coach.

"Rav Meir used to ridicule those who sinned. One day Satan i.e. his yetzer hara, appeared to him in the guise of a woman on the opposite side of the river." (Kiddushin 81a) So overcome by desire Rav Meir used almost super human strength to get across the river. As the Talmud notes there were no boats leaving shore, so Rav Meir started climbing via a rope that went from one side to the other. This was no easy task and likely a most dangerous one. Yet the temptation to sin was so great that Rav Meir was willing to do whatever needed to be done to satisfy his desires. Luckily when he was half way across the river his inclination subsided. "He said if they had not decreed in heaven to be careful with Rav Meir and his Torah, I would have made you worth but two cents." What and who this voice was we are not told. But such does not matter. Rav Meir understood that it was only due to his great diligence in Torah study that he was spared from sin. He would now be able to appreciate how easy sin is, especially for those not steeped in Torah.

Lest one think the story of Rav Meir is an anomaly it is immediately followed by a most similar story regarding Rabbi Akiva. He too made fun of sinners and he too was seized with a desire to sin with a woman. In his case he climbed up a palm tree to satisfy his desires. And here too his inclination was subdued just in time only in the merit of his great Torah study. 

And immediately preceding the story of Rav Meir is one involving Rav Amram Chasida, who the Gemara tells us lifted up a ladder "that ten men could not lift" so that he could climb up to the attic where a beautiful woman awaited. His desire did not subside and he yelled out "a fire in the house of Amram", knowing that others would understand his words literally and not as a reference to his burning desire to sin. When the rabbis arrived they realized what was happening and instead of scolding Rav Amram Chasida they felt awful as they realized they had shamed him. Rav Amram -who tellingly carried the name Chasida, the pious one - responded "better you shame Amram in this world than you shame me in the world to come." 

It is hard to imagine stories like these told about present day rabbis[1]. Yet our Sages did not shy away from what are actually most inspiring and comforting stories. We all struggle and we - and "we" includes100% of the population - do not always succeed in overcoming our desires be it in the area of sexuality, monetary dealing, gossip or a host of other sins. It is comforting to know that our great Sages also struggle. And if we, or they, fail that is just being normal. We must always aim to do better but we must not let our failure cripple us. It is not all or nothing.

Rav Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the Mussar movement, had great insight into the human condition. He noted that it takes much greater moral strength to be a layman, especially one in the business world, than a rabbi. A rabbi spends his time in shul avoiding much of the temptations a businessman must face on a daily basis. Few are going to suggest some shady deal to a rabbi. Before entering the business world one must do all one can to ensure one has the moral fortitude to succeed in sanctifying G-d's name every day. Those who feel they do not should enter the rabbinate.

How careful must we all - especially those fortunate enough to spend their days "in the house of the Lord" - be not go judge others and too understand that sinning is part and parcel of living. Let us use the sin as a teaching moment allowing us to do better next time.

 

[1] To see the great lengths that many will go to censor, expunge or plain old rewrite the truth so that it conforms to current day political religious correctness see the fascinating study by Marc Shapiro in

Changing the immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites its History