The Talking Cure

Daf 5. Summary. The Gemara states that a Torah scholar is exempt from reciting the Shema on his bed. Abaye says that even a Torah scholar must recite at least one verse of prayer. Several techniques for subduing the evil inclination are offered. It is stated that the Talmud was given to Moses from Sinai.

Returning to the recitation of the Shema in bed, Rabbi Yitzhak says it is protection against evil and demons. Rabbi Shimon Ben Lakish says it keeps suffering away. According to Rabbi Yohanan, one who can study but doesn’t will suffer “hideous afflictions that will embarrass him and trouble him.” But the righteous suffer, too! (Such a one should “examine his actions.”) If he can find no transgression that merits his affliction, “he may be confident that these are afflictions of love.” Those who accept such suffering with love will have a long life, blessed by his children.

Rabbi Yohanan is asked to comment on a baraita: “If one engages in Torah and acts of charity and buries his son, all his transgressions are forgiven.” Yohanan inquires, “from where is it derived that the transgressions of the one who buries his sons are forgiven?” He rejects the derivation that is offered and insists, “Leprosy and suffering due to children are not afflictions of love.” The Gemara attempts to determine under what circumstances leprosy might be an affliction of love. And the Gemara strives to understand why Yohanan would declare that suffering due to the death of children was not an affliction of love when he himself consoles victims of catastrophes by producing the bone of his tenth son (Yohanan has buried all his sons). It is demonstrated through several instances that Yohanan has the power to cure the suffering of others but not his own. In the final example, Rabbi Elazar tells Rabbi Yohanan, “I am not crying over my misfortunes but rather over this beauty of yours that will decompose in the earth.” Then they both weep, after which Yohanan restores Elazar to health.

Another story illustrates the higher standard to which the Sages are held. Then the Gemara returns to the topic of prayer. Abba Binyamin teaches that when two enter a synagogue to pray, the one who finishes first must not leave until the other one has finished, too. If he does, “his prayer is thrown back in his face.”

Comment. We are expected to take consolation from the idea that afflictions are divine visitations, delivered in love, to build our character and give us strength. But we are also shown a most effective therapist, Rabbi Yohanan, who can effectively use this idea to console others but finds himself immune to its consoling power. Perhaps when he brandishes the bone of his tenth son, the consolation he is offering is that the suffering his patient endures is nothing compared to his own. As effective as that may be, it lacks the exalted component advanced in the principle introduced in this daf.

Nevertheless, I cannot resist suggesting that the sufferings in this daf are perhaps the first recorded cases of neurosis. They are in the soul or in the psyche, not medical conditions susceptible to treatment by herbs or compounds, Rabbi Yohanin treats them with the “talking cure,” a millennium before Freud!  

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