Acquiring Torah 30: Heart & Eyes Connected
Rabbi Chiya and Rabbi Shimon ben Rebbi once sat together, when one of them began as follows: A man who offers up his prayers must direct his eyes towards the Temple below, for it is said, “And My eyes and My heart shall be there perpetually (I Kings 9:3).” And the other said: The eyes of him who offers up prayers shall be directed towards the heavens above, for it is said, “Let us lift up our heart with our hand (Lamentations 3:41).” In the meanwhile they were joined by Rabbi Yishmael son of Rabbi Yosi. ‘On what subject are you engaged?’ he asked them.
“On the subject of prayer,” they replied. ‘My father,’ he said to them, ‘ruled thus: A man who offers up his prayers must direct his eyes to the Sanctuary below and his heart towards the heavens above so that these two Scriptural texts may be complied with.’
While this was going on, Rabbi Yehudah the Prince entered the academy. They, being nimble, got into their places quickly. Rabbi Yishmael son of Rabbi Yosi, however, owing to his corpulence could only move to his place with slow steps. ‘Who is this man, cried Abdan out to him, ‘who strides over the heads of the holy people!’
The other replied. ‘I am Yishmael son of Rabbi Yosi who has come to learn Torah from Rabbi’.
‘Are you deserving,’ the first said to him, ‘to learn Torah from Rabbi?’
‘Was Moses fit,’ the other retorted, ‘to learn Torah from the lips of the Omnipotent!’
‘Are you Moses indeed!’ the first exclaimed.
‘Is then your Master a god!’ the other retorted…
Abdan now came back picking his steps (between the students), when Rabbi Yishmael son of Rabbi Yosi exclaimed, ‘He of whom the holy people is in need may well stride over the heads of the holy people; but how dare he of whom the holy people has no need stride over the heads of the holy people!’
‘Remain in your place’, said Rabbi to Abdan.
It was taught: At that instant Abdan became leprous, his two sons were drowned and his two daughters-in-law made declarations of refusal of marriage.
‘Blessed be the All Merciful’, said Rabbi Nachman bar Isaac, ‘who has put Abdan to shame in this world’.
The Talmud presents the story of Abdan immediately following a discussion about where one should focus during prayer. It then inserts a discussion of whether Rabbi Yishmael was worthy of studying under Rabbi Yehudah the Prince in middle of Abdan’s story. Although Rabbi Yehudah simply ordered Abdan to remain in his place, he was devastated by punishments, and, according to Rabbi Nachman, deservedly so, and by the Hand of the All Merciful!
It is interesting to note that Abdan seemed to have his heart and eyes in two different places; he fought for Rabbi Yehudah’s honor and that of Rebbi’s students, and yet, he did the same as Rabbi Yishmael when he picked his steps between the students. Abdan’s heart was on one place; honoring Rebbi and his students, but his actions were inconsistent with his heart.
The discussion about prayer was resolved when Rabbi Yishmael quoted his father as saying, “A man who offers up his prayers must direct his eyes to the Sanctuary below and his heart towards the heavens above so that these two Scriptural texts may be complied with,” in other words, his eyes are in one place and his heart in another, but connected and consistent.
Rabbi Yishmael honored Rebbi so much that he was desperate to learn from him, and yet when challenged, “Are you deserving to learn Torah from Rebbi,” did not hesitate to respond, “Was Moses fit to learn Torah from the lips of God!” His eyes were focused on Rebbi’s honor while his heart was focused on the honor of God’s Torah; different places, but completely consistent.
Abdan was inconsistent. He criticized Rabbi Yishmael for picking his steps between the students, and yet, did the same himself, although less deserving of respect than Rabbi Yishmael. He served in an important position as Rebbi’s assistant, and yet he did not hesitate to rebuke a greater man, and question his honor. Rabbi Yosi, Rabbi Yishmael’s father, would say that Abdan did not know how to pray!
Torah speaks to the world directly in front of us even as it directs us toward heaven. Torah study demands that we focus our eyes on this world, while our hearts are directed to heaven. It also insists on consistency. It was here that Abdan failed. “Remain in your place,” means that the person is limited and cannot grow. He is stuck.
Such a person has no right to challenge the dignity or to publicly rebuke others. His Torah was diseased. He was disconnected from the future. He was no longer connected in any form to the Torah, which is Rachamana, a gift from the All Merciful.