Saturday, December 12, 2009


Captain of the Ship

by: Meoros HaDaf HaYomi

The captain applied his sun burnt hand to the well-worn helm as the ship crossed the ocean, now deceptively placid as if incapable of ever erupting into a life-threatening storm. The sails were taut in the quickening wind, speeding the boat to its destination, and the passengers were finishing their after-dinner drink while gazing with fascination at a school of dolphins cavorting alongside the vessel. In his youth, the captain detailed each voyage in his diary but now, he said, “Every white hair on my hair marks another crossing.” His long years at sea left their impression and sometimes it seemed as if his forehead was about to sprout the same green mildew that covered the hull. He was inseparable from his ship and even his marrying a few years ago could not persuade him to leave the sea. Twice a year he returned to France to his wife and small son, stayed a while and went back to his natural recess on the open ocean.

Once, when harboring near home, he was consumed by a yearning for his family. Having had enough of his wearying profession, he rushed home in a swift carriage and, greeting his beloved ones, soon stretched out before the warming fireplace. After a few weeks, he told his wife that he meant to take their only son on his next voyage. “He must learn the trade”, he declared, “I’m getting old and don’t know how long I can go on working. The time has come to train him in the secrets of this demanding profession.” His wife, thoroughly attached to her son, rejected the idea. He should learn a trade, she agreed, but only without leaving home. The captain, though steeled against the challenges of hurricanes and monsoons, could not withstand a mother’s pleas. “All right”, he acquiesced, “I’ll teach him to be a captain at home.”

For a few days the captain was busy in the cellar with a secret project. “I’ll show you only when I’m finished,” he told his curious family. Finally, he brought up a tiny model of his ship, marvelously identical to the original. “Here,” he told his son, pointing with a weathered hand, “is my room where, one day, you’ll sleep. The sailors’ quarters are just behind.” Opening a small door, he indicated a storeroom below deck for wood to be made into new masts to replace any broken in a storm. He then spent a long while with his attentive son learning the boat’s intricacies until the boy could tour it thoroughly in his mind’s eye. They then excitedly launched the model in a huge tub of water. The captain had lined the tub with soft sand, added some cheerfully swimming goldfish, poured in some azure ink and sketched amazingly realistic scenes along the sides. The effect was perfect. Lowering the anchor into the sand, he told his son to blow as hard as he could at the sails. Flushed crimson from the effort, he failed to move the boat in any direction and his father then said, “That is the anchor’s purpose: It keeps a ship firmly in place. Now, let’s get under way.”

Night had long fallen, but the captain and his son continued to sail around and across the tub, aided by tiny kerosene lanterns hung from the model’s hull. Using a huge bellows, they pelted the boat with winds that would have sunk it if not for the captain’s navigational skill. His wife had long gone to bed. “He’s staying with me,” ruled the captain, “At sea you can’t go to sleep whenever you want. Sometimes you have stay up two or three days till a storm abates.” The model, tossed constantly throughout the night, became a shambles. With sails tattered on the deck and broken masts, it seemed that naught had survived the trial. “And yet,” beamed the captain, “it never capsized! That is a captain’s job!”

The lessons continued in the next days until the boy learnt the secrets of the profession and succeeded in keeping the ship afloat throughout all the 16 hours of artificial storms and tsunamis his father created. “Now he’s a captain!” he cheerily announced to his wife and clapped the youth’s shoulder. Calm and confident, he returned to sea, satisfied that his son had learnt the profession.

Rabbi Yosef Chayim zt”l used this story in his Rav Pe’alim (III, Sod Yesharim, 1) to answer a “scholar in another town who asked questions about learning Kabbalah.” We, he explains, in the post-Talmudic era, are like the captain’s son who learned to steer a ship in a tub. Rabbi Chayim’s correspondent delved into the Kabbalah and sometimes encountered incomprehensible topics. But if he would only be aware of his own level, Rabbi Chayim replied, he would realize the limits of his cognition and accept the tradition as it is. The same applies to the tales (aggados) of Rabbah bar bar Chanah learned this week. An outstanding Torah scholar, with many years of experience delivering a Daf HaYomi shi’ur to prestigious congregations, introduces the tales with Rabbi Chayim’s parable. The anecdotes about a monstrous fish or a very peculiar bird, he admits, seem wildly imaginary, but we must understand that the topics are described on the level of the greatest tzadikim and according to their wisdom, unfathomable to us.

With the sublime feeling that we have the merit to repeat the Torah of the most exalted tzadikim, we go on learning each sugya, hoping the time will soon come to comprehend the depth of their statements, as Yesha’yahu says (11:9): “…The earth will be full of knowledge of Hashem, as water covers the sea.”

An Eighth of an Eighth of Pride

Our sugya informs us that the height of Mt. Tavor is four parsaos. A parsah is four mil, a mil is 2,000 cubits and Mt. Tavor is therefore 32,000 cubits high.

The Midrash relates that when Hashem was about to give us the Torah, Mt. Tavor wanted the honor because of its height. Hashem, though, ignored all other mountains and chose low Mt. Sinai to teach us the value of humility (Sotah 5a), as stressed by Yeshayahu (57:15): “...I dwell…with the lowly…” (Midrash Rabah, Vilna ed., 99). According to Midrash Rabah (Parashas Bo), Mt. Sinai is 500 cubits high, one sixty-fourth (an eighth of an eighth) the height of Mt. Tavor. Hence, Rebbe Heshel of Krakow zt”l asserted that the Gemara learns therefrom that a Torah scholar should have an eighth of an eighth of pride (Chanukas HaTorah).

The Stick that Saves

Sailors told Rabbah that a wave threatening to sink a ship is seen from afar, preceded by a white flame. To save themselves, they hit it with a beam inscribed with certain words, including Hashem’s name, and the wave recedes.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslav zt”l interpreted this description as a parable for our constant struggle with life’s challenges: “A wave that can sink a ship” is the yeitzer hara attacking the ship of Israel. It appears like a white flame, assuming an aura of sanctity and purity to lead us astray. The only remedy is to hit it with a stick bearing Hashem’s name – the Torah – for “Hashem and the Torah are one” and, as said in the name of Rabbi Yishmael, “If that despicable being (yeitzer hara) attacks you, drag him to a beis midrash” (Sukkah 52b).

The Chasam Sofer comments on our Gemora that the parable corresponds to the sea of life threatening us with its storms. The only way to protect ourselves is to fortify our faith in Hashem, who saves us from distress. The letters of makel (“stick”) form the initials of me’olam kivinu lach: “We have always hoped in You”.

The Frog, the Snake and the Raven

Rabbah bar bar Chanah saw a frog as big as a town with sixty houses. A huge snake swallowed it and an enormous raven devoured the snake and flew to a branch of a tree which, despite the bird’s weight, did not break.

Ritva comments that the tale is a metaphor for the Arabian empire, which assimilated and mixed a number of ethnic groups: Mohammed and his followers conquered and united the peoples of southwest Asia, North Africa and Iberia and then ruled over a great percentage of our people. The living tree is Hashem’s constant miraculous care and concern which give us the strength to survive: “The tree is sturdy enough”, concludes the Ritva, “to enable us to live with the Arabs and observe the Torah among them. Were we not seeing this with our own eyes, we would never believe it!”