The Torah tells us to honor parents and my extension, big brothers and teachers. This is one of the top five, and yet it has its boundaries. The question often comes up, what to do in situations of abuse: do we still have an obligation of “kavod”? and what does it mean? Notice, that the Torah told us to love G-d and our “neighbor” but did not tell us to love parents. This can be because love here was not a priority or the Torah realized how complicated this can be or we don’t quite understand “love” and “honor” and what actions are required and derived from either.
The Talmud in this week’s reading, sets one such limit on honoring great teachers. As the text is meandering in its usual associative manner, we’re not near discussion about honor, but rather about “benching”, blessing after the meal, which leads us to looking at hand washing before and after food. From there we remember something (Brachot 46:b-47:a):
תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן: אֵין מְכַבְּדִין לֹא בִּדְרָכִים וְלֹא בִּגְשָׁרִים וְלֹא בְּיָדַיִם מְזוֹהָמוֹת.
The Sages teach that there are times and places where one does not show respect. There include roads, bridges and dirty hands (i.e., with regard to washing hands at the end of a meal).
Then the Gemara follows up with a story, which has nothing to do with the hands, but with a journey taken:
רָבִין וְאַבָּיֵי הֲווֹ קָא אָזְלִי בְּאוֹרְחָא, קַדְמֵיהּ חֲמָרֵיהּ דְּרַבִּין לִדְאַבָּיֵי וְלָא אֲמַר לֵיהּ ״נֵיזִיל מָר״. אֲמַר: מִדִּסְלִיק הַאי מֵרַבָּנַן מִמַּעְרְבָא, גַּס לֵיהּ דַּעְתֵּיהּ. כִּי מְטָא לְפִתְחָא דְבֵי כְנִישְׁתָּא אֲמַר לֵיהּ: נֵיעַל מָר. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: וְעַד הַשְׁתָּא לָאו מָר אֲנָא? אֲמַר לֵיהּ, הָכִי אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן: אֵין מְכַבְּדִין אֶלָּא בְּפֶתַח שֶׁיֵּשׁ בָּהּ מְזוּזָה.
Ravin and Abaye were traveling along the road on donkeys. Ravin’s donkey preceded Abaye’s and Ravin did not say to Abaye: Let the Master go first. Abaye said to himself: Ever since this one of the Sages, Ravin, ascended from the West, he has become arrogant. When they reached the door of the synagogue, Ravin said to Abaye: Let the Master enter first. Abaye said to him: Until now was I not Master? Ravin said to him: Rabbi Yoḥanan said the following: One only defers to those greater than he at a doorway that has a mezuza (or that is worthwhile of the mezuza).
Two sages are traveling together on donkeys. The road, paths and bridges too, are likely narrow and often, dangerous. This is not the right place to begin a ‘you go ahead’, ‘no, you go ahead’, ‘no, I insist, you go’… This is a place that is purposeful and necessitates movement forward. However, Abaye does not attribute Ravin’s considerate behavior to his learning and manners, but rather, thinks of it as rude, for Ravin does not let the master ahead. Further, he thinks “to himself” (how does the Gemara know what anyone thinks to himself??) that since Ravin has “ascended from the West”, his manners have deteriorated. Where is the West for the Babylonian sages? Indeed, it is Eretz Yisrael. Notice two things: 1. Abaye talks about “ascending from”… while we most often speak of going up TO Israel, and down elsewhere, here, Abaye thinks of Babylon as the up and Ravin coming from a place further “down”… oh oh! The land of Israel as “down”? then we see that this is how he thinks of its sages, surely Ravin is rude for not calling Abaye master and not letting him go first. But Ravin uses it to teach Abaye an “Israeli halacha”, taught by Rabbi Yochanan, the editor of the Jerusalem Talmud: respect “games” have their place and time; not everywhere, but where is appropriate and where it has meaning. In a structure that holds a mezuza – or could hold one (in those days, synagogues did not have one), you go ahead, but not on the road, where we are both equal, human travelers.
But how interesting, the tension between “diaspora” and “The Land”, then and now: who is “up”? which direction is the “ascend”? Do we attribute behaviors that are not like “ours” to learning, tradition or some other “inferior” culture we misunderstand?
And how is hand-washing here? That too is considered like a act holding a danger, so just do it. Honor those who deserve honor, later.