Today’s daf (Menachot 53a-b) contains a fascinating story of an exchange between Rabbi Perida, his students, and a certain Rabbi Ezra who wanted to come into Rabbi Perida’s study session:
The rabbi-students said to R. Perida, “R. Ezra, the grandson of R. Abtolos, who is the tenth generation from R. Eleazar b. ‘Azariah, who is the tenth generation from Ezra [the Scribe], is standing at the door’ — Said he to them, ‘Why all this [pedigree]? If he is a learned man, it is well; if he is a learned man and also a scion of noble ancestors, it is well (other texts: it is even better); but if he is a scion of noble ancestors and not a learned man, then may fire consume him!’. They told him that he was a learned man, whereupon he said, ‘Let him come in’.
After R. Ezra was admitted, Rabbi Perida saw that he was in a “dark mood,” and gave a homily on a verse, describing a scene were the Knesset Yisrael, the Jewish People, turn to God and ask for credit for having spread the awareness of God throughout the world. God responds that they do not get credit for that, but rather the credit goes to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov who were the first to proclaim God’s name in the world.
After hearing this homily, R. Ezra is reminded of a series of homilies of his own, and pulling together a collection of verses, that use the same term to refer to God, Israel, etc. he says: “Let the Mighty (God) come and compensate the mighty (Israel) from the plunder of the mighty (Egyptians) out of the mighty (Red Sea).” He continues in this vein for a number of derashot: “Let the beloved (King Solomon), son of the beloved (Avraham) come and build the beloved (Temple) for the Beloved (God) in the portion of the beloved (tribe of Binyamin), so that the beloved people (Israel) may achieve atonement,” and so on.
What is the point of all of this? What is really going on here?
It seems that R. Preida and R. Ezra have not yet gotten over the exchange that occurred at the front door. R. Ezra was in a “black mood,” because his yichus had been dismissed as insignificant. R. Preida attempted to make him understand his position. His homily made a clear statement, to wit, future generations do not get credit for the accomplishments of their ancestors. Only those who actually accomplished and achieved get the recognition and the credit. Interestingly, R. Predia’s homily implies that even when the later generations continue to follow the path that had be laid out by their ancestors, they cannot claim any significant credit for their accomplishments. They are followers, not initiators, and the credit they deserve for not abandoning the path of their predecessors is minimal.
The implication is clear. Not only does R. Ezra not deserve credit simply because he his illustrious ancestors, but even his own accomplishments in Torah may not be that remarkable, given the path already trodden by those that preceded him. Perhaps the most that can be said, is that were R. Ezra not to be a talmid chakham, then his guilt would be compounded, because it would have been so easy for him to do this – he had all the advantages of upbringing and role-modeling (not to mention genes!). Hence, R. Preida’s harsh statement, “And if he is not a scholar, let a fire consume him!”
[It is interesting to note the different textual versions on the earlier line of R. Preida: “If he is learned and of noble ancestors, then it is well.” or “… then it is even better”. The first version has R. Preida completely unimpressed with R. Ezra’s ancestors, even if R. Ezra has followed in their footsteps. Having accomplished ancestors can only be a burden, it raises the bar of expectation (that one will apply to oneself and that others will apply to such a person). According to the alternate text, “… then it is even better,” R. Preida acknowledges that if one does live up to the example set for him by previous generations, then the accomplishments of or the honor that is afforded to one’s ancestors extends to this person as well. This latter approach is not completely consistent with R. Preida’s homily wherein God affords no credit to Knesset Israel for following in the footsteps of their ancestors.
It is also worth noting that in the next aggadata, the Gemara discusses Avraham crying and praying to God over the destruction of the Temple and the exile of Israel. What is notable of that Gemara is that the concept of zekhut avot, merit of the forefathers, is not mentioned, and that Avraham only tries to defend Israel based on the mitzvot and aveirotthat they have or have not done. This aggadata, then, reflects the approach of R. Preida, and, moreover, his prediction came true. For when Israel did not follow in the footsteps of their forefathers, when they – as the aggadata relates – even reversed the circumcision of Avraham – then the accomplishments of their forefathers could not help them, and instead “a fire consumed them.”]
R. Ezra, for his part, is not prepared to dismiss the importance of his ancestors. He is a direct descendant of Ezra the Scribe, for God’s sake! His homilies make his position clear. First, he reads the same word “the mighty,” that R. Preida read to refer to Avraham, Isaac, and Jacob to refer to Israel. In contradistinction to R. Preida’s claim, R. Ezra is saying that it is exactly Israel that are entitled to be called mighty! More to point, all of his homilies assert the principle of affinity. Beloved people do beloved things for their beloved God, and it accrues benefit to a beloved nation. When there is an affinity between people and events, then powerful things happen. There is almost a metaphysical power that brings these people, things, and actions together.
The power of affinity – says R. Ezra – is the power of one’s ancestors. Let’s remember that R. Ezra’s name is Ezra, his illustrious ancestor of 10 generations past was R. Elazer ben Azaryeh – the name Azaryeh and different form of the name Ezra – and his illustrious ancestor of 10 generations prior to that was none other than Ezra the scribe! R. Ezra is effectively saying – Let Ezra come and give credit/honor/wisdom to the son of Azaryeh, who will give such credit/honor/wisdom to (Rebbe) Ezra in the present!
It does not seem that R. Ezra is arguing that yichus alone is significant. If one accomplishes nothing in life, then one’s yichus means nothing. What he is arguing is that it should not be ignored. If one has impressive yichus, then it is natural to expect impressive things from such a person, and a certain amount of acknowledgement should be given to such a person – if not for what he has accomplished or done (which may not yet be impressive), then at least because of what he may do, given who he is and whence he descends.
We only have to look around us and at our history to see the truth in this statement. There are rabbinic families where certain talents seem to “run in the family,” and one begins to expect that the son will be much like the father. Sometimes this is true in the case of communal leadership, and sometimes in the case of scholarship. Consider the very daf Gemara. What makes up the daf Gemara other than the Gemara itself? The works of just one family – Rashi and his descendants. Rashi is the standard commentary, and where there is no Rashi, there is Rashbam, his grandson. Tosafot are the standard critical commentary, and who are they written by? Rabbeinu Tam, Rashi’s grandson, and the R”I, Rabbeinu Tam’s nephew! Our entire daf Gemara, written by one family!
The Gemara in Baba Metzia makes this point clearly:
R. Parnak said in R. Johanan’s name: He who is himself a scholar, and his son is a scholar, and his son’s son too, the Torah will nevermore cease from his seed, as it is written, “As for me, this is my covenant with them, saith the Lord; My spirit is upon thee, and my words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed’s seed, saith the Lord, from henceforth and for ever.” What is meant by ‘saith the Lord’? — The Holy one, blessed be He, said, I am surety for thee in this matter. What is the meaning of ‘from henceforth and for ever’? — R. Jeremiah said: From henceforth [i.e., after three generations] the Torah seeks its home.
(Baba Metzia 85a)
On the one hand, there is a metaphysics at work here. Torah stays in the family because God rewards this family, and is “the surety for this matter.” But there is also a very natural explanation: “Torah seeks its home.” There is the benefit of good genes, and beyond that, there is also good upbringing, good role modeling, and certain implicit or explicit expectations, all of which can be strong motivators. A person born into such a family has a lot of advantages, and a lot can be – and often is – expected of him.
The flip side of R. Ezra’s position, however, is that this can be a tremendous burden as well. A person born into such a family may not want to become a Torah scholar, but me feel that he has to. Or he may not have the talents to do this, but feels pushed onto this path. There is something freeing about R. Preida’s position, that says, forget about your yichus, let’s talk about you. Although, as noted above, R. Preida is also harsh on such a person if he does not become a scholar in his own right. R. Preida, then, represents the harshest stance – you are not entitled to take pride in your yichus, but you will be held accountable if you fail to live up to the example that has been set for you. A composite position that is the least judgmental would be that one should not be proud just because of their yichus if they have not accomplished anything. A person should see his yichus as giving him or her tremendous opportunity and advantage, but also that he or she should be free to choose their own path, their own goals, their own role models, and their own ideals. Of course, this more pluralistic approach may be somewhat foreign to the Gemara’s way of thinking…
In closing, I would like to share the comment made today by one of the attendees of my shiur, Dov Weinstock. Dov said that perhaps the point in R. Ezra’s statement is not that there are forces of affinity that bring these things together, that the accomplishment of one’s ancestors will have an impact on his or her own course in life, but rather that there is a certain poetry when these things come together in such a fitting way. When the beloved king builds a beloved Temple to the beloved God in the territory of the beloved tribe, there is a poetic beauty to what has happened. Similarly, while it may be too much to expect automatic credit for one’s ancestors, or to expect that one’s illustrious ancestors will mean that he or she will succeed in life, and while it may be too unfair to burden a person with the expectations of living up to the accomplishments of one’s ancestors, nevertheless, when one does choose the same path, and does follow in their ancestors footsteps, and does become another link in this illustrious chain, then there is a certain poetic beauty that we can all appreciate. In this way, yichus is truly a beautiful thing.