#65 - Sanhedrin 37-43
THE TWO-HANDED APPROACH TO SINNERS
In the neighborhood of Rabbi Zeira there lived some sinful Jews. He reached out to them and befriended them in the hope that they would repent their ways. This did not find favor with some of the other sages. When Rabbi Zeira passed away these sinners were distraught. Until now, they cried, Rabbi Zeira prayed to Heaven in our behalf but who will do so now? They took this so much to heart that they became baalei teshuva.
Rabbi Zeiras attitude towards these sinners was an expression of the interpretation of a Torah passage quoted in our gemara. When Yaakov came to his blind father, Yitzchak, to receive the blessings that had been intended for his brother Esav, the exotic fragrance of Gan Eden (Paradise) accompanied him, causing Yitzchak to exclaim that he smelled in his garments "the field which G-d had blessed" (Bereishet 27:27). The word for garments "begadov" can also be read as "bogdov" which means the betrayers. Even those who betray G-d with their sins, Rabbi Zeira deduced from this passage, have a scent of holiness in them.
The difference between Rabbi Zeiras attitude towards his sinful neighbors and that of the other sages can be understood, writes the author of Minei Targema, by referring to a gemara towards the end of our mesechta (Sanhedrin 107b). The Prophet Elisha banished his attendant Gechazi from his presence because of his sinful action in misrepresenting his master and demanding gifts from the Aramite general Naaman, whom Elisha had miraculously cured from leprosy and whose offer of a reward was rejected by the prophet (Melachim II 5). Those sages who adopted a hostile attitude to the sinners saw Elishas action as a precedent for how to deal with those who behaved improperly. Rabbi Zeira, however, was greater in Torah knowledge than them and was aware of the beraita which urges us not to follow Elishas example of rejecting the sinner with both hands but to rather reject him with the left hand and draw him close with the right one.
Elisha himself, notes Rabbi Yochanan, realized that he had dealt too harshly with Gechazi. The passage in Melachim II 8:7 mentions that the prophet came to Damascus without stating the purpose of his trip. He went there in an attempt to influence Gechazi to repent but he was too late because the earlier rejection had caused him to become so corrupt that he felt he could never return.
PROPHETS IN THE CAVES
The Prophet Ovadia, whose prophecy is included in the Trei Asar (Book of 12 Prophets), was an Edomite convert to Judaism. Rabbi Yitzchak therefore raises the question as to how he merited the levels of prophecy which is reserved for those of Jewish ancestry.
His answer is to refer us to the passage (Melachim I 18:4) which describes the heroism of the convert. When the wicked Queen Izevel executed almost all the prophets of G-d in order to promote the prophets of idolatry it was Ovadia who rescued 100 of them. Although he was the officer in charge of the royal household, Ovadia risked his position and his life by secretly hiding these prophets in two caves, fifty in each, and supplying tem with food and drink. It was in the merit of such self-sacrificing courage to save true prophets that he himself was blessed with the gift of prophecy.
But why did he not hide all hundred in a single cave and simplify the service he provided them? Two radically different answers are given by our sages. Rabbi Abahu says that no single cave could accommodate all of them so he divided them between two caves. Rabbi Elazar, on the other hand, states that Ovadia took his cue from Yaakov who divided his company into two camps as he prepared for a possible military confrontation with his hostile brother, Esav, and his army of 400 men. Just as Yaakov explained (Bereishet 32:8) his strategy that "should Esav come and attack the first camp the other one will have the opportunity of escaping" so too did Ovadia divide the prophets into two different caves.
It may be suggested that Rabbi Elazar rejected the simple approach of Rabbi Abahu because he felt that if the reason for dividing them was so prosaic as a lack of space there would not have been any need for this to be recorded in the sacred writings of Tanach. On the other hand, the fact that his strategy was recorded without mentioning the logic behind it provides us with an answer to the question raised by Maharsha regarding Rabbi Elazars explanation. Why, he asks, does he ascribe Ovadias action to an emulation of Yaakovs strategy rather than credit him with reaching this logical conclusion on his own? The answer he gives is that since the passage does not cite Ovadias reasoning as the Torah does in regard to Yaakov, we must conclude that it was not his own logic which guided his two caves strategy but rather that he learned a lesson from Yaakov whose reasoning is already recorded.