Thursday, 25 July 2013

On Rebirth and Rosh Hashanah - Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan

A little odd to be posting on RH in July, but copy deadlines for Rabbis come early.

This is something for a reading pack that will be available at New London come 5/6th September, available now for anyone who wants to get in the mood early,




My favourite talmudic tale of rebirth comes from tractate Baba Metziah. Shimon, son of Lakish is a bandit, a gladiator, with blood on his hands who one day spies an effete blond figure bathing, presumably naked, in the Jordan River. Shimon leaps in after .... well it turns out to be Rabbi Yochanan. The great Rabbi stuns the gladiator into forgoing his violent ways and Shimon becomes a 'great rabbi' - now known as Reish Lakish - one of the greatest. The pages of the Talmud are full of observances of Reish Lakish detailed, learned and integral to everything that Talmudic Judaism represents. But the story, on this page of Baba Metziah, skips ahead, long into the future, and continues with what, at first sight seems to be a purely technical debate.


Rabbi Yochanan and the ex-gladiator debate the point at which various metal implements; swords, scythes and daggers, are completed. Rabbi Yochanan considers this takes place as the metal comes out of the furnace. Reish Lakish thinks it is after they have been plunged into the water. Rabbi Yochanan defers in favour of Reish Lakish, 'after all a bandit knows his tools.' But this apparent act of humility backfires terribly. Reish Lakish is 'weakened' by what he understands as a terrible insult and quickly passes away. Rabbi Yochanan is bereft at the loss of his study partner.


To understand what could hurt Reish Lakish so deeply you have to realise Reish Lakish understands the question about these weapons of violence as being a question about himself. He was a weapon of violence, fully formed, but capable of profound change by being plunged into the water. He wants Rabbi Yochanan to acknowledge that change is still possible, even if the physical form of the object is already set. But Rabbi Yochanan fails to realise how this matter is, for his study partner, existential. He thinks Reish Lakish is disagreeing with him because in his past he wielded knifes. But this is not why Reish Lakish disagreed with his master and he’s deeply wounded by having his past dragged into his present at the very moment he was asking to be acknowledged as having changed. As the mentor deems his student no more than the bandit he once was, the student’s entire sense of self is stripped from him.


This is how rebirth works. At a certain point in life, maybe, we undergo change. We emerge from some profound experience feeling reborn, new, different. And then we re-enter the world. We want to be taken seriously in our new life. We take our transformation seriously, we try to pull off this new life with integrity, but there is a weakness in our armour. We know we can be stripped of all this rebuilding in a moment by someone treating us as we once were - and the more important that person is for us, the more terribly all our efforts can be annulled. It's something I thought about a great deal in my first years as an ordained Rabbi and in my first years at New London. It's something I think about when I consider the journey of many in our conversion programme. It's something I know many of us face, and fear.


So these are the lessons I learn from this Talmudic tale of rebirth;

Change is possible, Reish Lakish was a great Rabbi, I am also a Rabbi, we are all capable of change, we all change.

Change takes effort to pull off, rebirth demands integrity and commitment.

But those of us who are reborn are fragile in our new skin and those we love and respect most have the greatest ability to rip, from us, our new sense of self.

Maybe more than the teachings of a brief tale related in Baba Metziah, these are the teachings of this whole Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur season.


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