Between the Lines—Va-yiggash

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Abigail Treu

תלמוד בבלי מסכת תענית דף י עמוד ב

(בראשית מ"ה) אל תרגזו בדרך, אמר רבי אלעזר: אמר להם יוסף לאחיו: אל תתעסקו בדבר הלכה, שמא תרגו עליכם הדרך.

Babylonian Talmud Ta'anit 10b

"Do not be quarrelsome on the way." (Genesis 45:24) Rabbi Elazar said: Joseph was telling his brothers: Do not engage in halakhic discussions, lest you quarrel on the way.

In an age in which bickering about halakhah—its particulars and its generalities—has become the Achilles' heel of the Jewish community, Rabbi Elazar's words resound. The midrash in BT Ta'anit goes on to qualify his statement; clearly the rabbis were concerned lest this teaching discourage the sharing of words of Torah. By the end of their discussion, they have qualified his teaching as referring only to Torah scholars analyzing halakhic teachings, not to reciting or reviewing them.

The overall principle is an important one, however. Within communities, the bickering of any ritual committee can turn into a community-wide sparring match. On the larger scale are interdenominational arguments, such as those over the right of women to pray at the Kotel or the question of whose conversions are halakhically acceptable to whom. Each of these issues is important, to be sure, but more important is the overall health of the community and our relationships to other Jews. The principle that "all Jews are responsible for one another" (Sh'vuot 39a) should remind us that halakhah is supposed to bring us to leading lives infused with holiness; halakhah should not become the distraction which causes us to lose our way.