BY EDEN FARBER / AJT //
Dr. Ruth Caldron, Talmud professor at Hebrew University in Israel and Knesset member representing the Yesh Atid party, delivered a very impactful address a couple months ago. She told a Talmudic story and spoke of the Talmud’s importance to both her and the religion as a whole.
Inspired by her example, I’d like to share a story that I found fascinating in my study
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and reflect on it with you. Note that this particular anecdote marks another appearance of the Talmud’s recurring warning that onions are dangerous.
Random? Yes. Important? Apparently, very.
Lo yochal adam batzal mipnei nachash.
“A person should not eat onions because of sorcery.”
We cannot quite understand what the word magic, or nachash, means in this context, but from the following story we can deduce that it is deadly.
Thus reads page 29b of the Tractate of Eruvin:
“And it once happened that Rabbi Hanina ate half an onion (and half of its poisonous fluid) and became so ill that he was on the brink of dying. His colleagues, however, begged for heavenly mercy, and he recovered because his contemporaries needed him.”
You can, perhaps, see why this story fascinates me. Taking it literally or not (I prefer the latter approach), it seems to defy the laws of nature. What we know now to be a silly superstition – the magical poison of onions – is a deadly factor in the story. Even more interesting, however, is the last section.
Having eaten half an onion, Rabbi Hanina was ill enough to die; but he lived.
Why? Because his friends needed him.
Now, I’m not going to make a generalization that people die because they are unneeded; that would be cruel. And I don’t think that’s what the Talmud is trying to say, either. Tragically, we lose people when we still need them – sometimes when we need them most.
No, this isn’t about the meaning of life or death; it seems to me that this is about the meaning of friendship. Rabbi Hanina was close to death, but his friends prayed for him because they “needed him.”
What does it mean, I ask, to pray out of need? It is not a particularly celebratory prayer; it does not praise G-d and G-d’s power, nor is it wishful.
I like to think of the difference between want and need as the difference between an ice cream cone and the sun. To pray out of need is an acknowledgment; I need this, I’m turning to G-d because I’m a believer, but I recognize that there is an inevitable.
Every human being is needed. Dr. Who himself famously said that “in 900 years of time and space, [he] never met anybody who wasn’t important before.”
This is outlined throughout the show – how that must be true – and our religion accounts it as well. Everyone has a mission, however large or small, and their part in the world is important, though not always appreciated.
I think the message of my Talmudic story is that Rabbi Hanina’s friends recognized they needed him – that he was a crucial part of their lives. We all have those people that we need, the people we see every day, talk to all the time, or even live with, and we need them – most of the time – but do we know it?
We also have things that we need, whether we know it or not: inspiration, support, love. There are things that we pass everyday on the street and never look at twice, yet simultaneously keep us alive. The Talmud, too, is something people need – for their religion and for themselves.
When I realized this for the first time, I thought of the people without whom my life would not be the same, and I saw without a doubt that I need them.
Think about the people in your lives that you need, be it the president, a significant other, a friend, a family member, a teacher or a student. Let’s appreciate them.
Because no one is unimportant and no one is unnecessary. Not ever.
Atlanta’s Eden Farber, 16, was recognized in the Jewish Heritage National Poetry Contest of 2010 and has published op-eds and poetry in Modern Hippie Magazine and the NY Jewish Week’s Fresh Ink for Teens section.