לברכה ולא לקללה (Taanit 7a)

It says, “May my words come down like rain” and it also says, “may my speech be like the dew” (Deuteronomy 32:2). If one is a proper Torah scholar, God’s words fall like dew; and if not, they smite him like rain. (Taanit 7a)

It is Saturday night of Chol Hamoed Pesach, just a few days after we recited the prayer for dew, and I am sitting at my kitchen table drinking hot tea and reading an article about Talmudic stories. The article mentions the prayers for rain and dew in Masechet Taanit, so I find myself opening up my Gemara and reviewing that sugya. The Talmud is trying to reconcile the apparent contradiction between the two halves of Deuteronomy 32:2. Do God’s words come down like rain (which falls with violent force) or like dew (which descends gently)? This depends on whether the Torah scholar is proper or not. The Talmud goes on to explain that a proper Torah scholar is one who studies “for the sake of God’s name,” and not for any ulterior motives. If the scholar studies for the sake of God’s name, Torah becomes “an elixir of life”; if not, it becomes an “elixir of death.” I hope that I am a proper Torah scholar, but (rather ominously) the ensuing events suggest otherwise….

Why is Torah analogized to water? It is written, “All who are thirsty shall go to the water” (Isaiah 55:1) to tell you: Just as water falls from a high place to a low place, so too does Torah not endure except in someone who is exceedingly humble. (Taanit 7a)

I have drunk my tea to the lees and I am thirsty again, so I walk over to my special Pesach hot water heater. But there is only a small amount of water left; it is time to refill the heater. First, though, I will lift up the lid and pour the remaining hot water into my cup. I am still thinking about the article I am reading and I fail to pay attention to what I am doing; the next thing I know, burning hot water is pouring down on the hand holding my glass tea cup, and I leap and yelp in agony and watch as my scorched hand turns a deep red.

Why is Torah analogized to fire? It is written, “Behold my word is like fire, declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 23:29). To teach you: Just as a flame does not ignite on its own, so too does Torah not endure in one who is alone. (Taanit 7a)

I feel as if my hand has just been singed by fire, and I am not sure what to do. Whom can I ask? Rashi explains that “one who is alone” refers to someone who has no study partner to challenge and sharpen his or her learning. It is true that if I had a study partner, that person might be able to offer assistance in just such a situation! I am hurting too much to think straight, but somehow I manage to pull the brown packaging tape off my freezer (which is prohibitively marked “CHAMETZ”), grab a frozen bag of string beans, and place it on my burning hand. The coldness feels soothing, but when I lift the bag for a moment, I am distressed to see that my hand is covered by several protruding welts, reminiscent, perhaps, of the plague of boils…..

If a scorched disciple [צורבא מרבנן] is boiling, it is Torah that is boiling in him, as it is written, “Behold my word is like fire, declares the Lord (Jeremiah 23:29). (Taanit 4a)

A term often used in the Talmud for a young Torah scholar is צורבא מרבנן, which literally means “a scorched one of the rabbis.” As I rummage through my bathroom cabinet for aloe vera gel, I wonder if I now qualify for this distinction. Perhaps I do not remember standing at Sinai, but I certainly received the water of Torah in an experience of fiery flames. And I certainly learned a good lesson tonight (albeit a lesson I seem to need to keep learning again and again). My hand hurts too much to concentrate on studying, so I put aside my book and decide to go to bed. I hope that the rain is truly over and gone, and that when I wake up in the morning, the world will be bathed in gentle dew.

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