Disarming the Angel of Death: Pesah 5775

There is a wild story at the end of the seventh chapter of B. Ketubot about Rabbi Yehoshua b. Levi. He is praised for visiting patients afflicted with the dreaded “ra’atan” disease (apparently some sort of parasite in the skull) and studying Torah with them, even as his rabbinic colleagues fearfully kept their distance. I concede that it is not entirely clear whether R’ Yehoshua b’ Levi was really performing the mitzvah of bikkur holim, as opposed to engaging in some sort of feat of Torah heroism, endangering himself in order to exalt the Torah, but not actually attending to the ill. From the angel of death’s description of his merit later in the story, and from a general preference to read generously, I am sticking with the understanding that he was visiting the afflicted out of compassion, and sharing the radiance of Torah with them.

In any event, Rabbi Yehoshua b. Levi explains his daring by citing an erotic verse in Proverbs 5:19, which the sages read as a praise of Torah study. He claims that just as the Torah exalts its students, so too does it protect them. When it comes time for R’ Yehoshua to die, the angel of death makes a courtesy call and even obeys R’ Yehoshua’s directions. The rabbi asks to be shown “my place” in the Garden of Eden, and he demands that the angel surrender his knife, lest he try to harm the rabbi on the way. When they reach the garden, the angel of death lifts the rabbi up so that he can see over the wall and preview his destined place. (The Maharsha explains, based on a story of Alexander the Great told on B. Tamid 32b, that the Garden of Eden is located inside this world, but separated by a high wall). As soon as Rabbi Yehoshua sees his spot, he jumps over the wall. The angel grabs hold of his cloak and tries to catch him, but God defends the rabbi, who has entered heaven alive. The angel of death is outraged—“Give me back my knife!” he cries. The rabbi refuses, but then a “bat kol” or divine echo resounds, “Give it to him, for the creatures need it.” Apparently, the world is not yet ready for an end to death.

Having entered heaven alive, who should greet Rabbi Yehoshua but Elijah, the prophet who famously ascended to heaven alive (and in style, aboard a chariot of fire, 2 Kings 2:11). Indeed, this story of R’ Yehoshua b. Levi bears many similarities to that of Elijah. The angel of death grabs hold of Yehoshua’s cloak, just as Elisha catches the cloak of his master Elijah. The rabbi, like the prophet, is capable of holding death at bay, and thus it is appropriate that Elijah clears a path for him through the Garden, crying “Make way for the son of Levi!” Despite this most impressive arrival, R’ Yehoshua maintains his humility in a conversation with the great R’ Shimon b. Yochai, who is seated on a golden throne and interrogates the newcomer about his credentials. R’ Yehoshua downplays his own merit, but the narrator reassures us that he is a true saint (indicated by the absence of rainbows in his lifetime—he merited to protect the world from harm). 

Reading this story, we are awed by the great rabbi, who is praised later by the angel of death for his courage in visiting those afflicted with “ra’atan.” Apparently, it is R’ Yehoshua b. Levi’s blend of courage, compassion, piety, wisdom and humility that allows him to fend off death time and again. And yet, he gives the angel back his knife, because death is “needed by the creatures” (דמיתבעא לברייתא). This world is not yet redeemed, and death is necessary, and perhaps even good. Midrash Bereshit Rabba mentions that Rabbi Meir had written into his copy of the Torah at Genesis 1:31, “it was very good,” the words, “death was good” (בתורתו של רבי מאיר מצאו כתוב, והנה טוב מאד והנה טוב מות ). I don’t know what exactly Rabbi Meir meant by that, but the sages apparently believed that mortality is necessary and sometimes even good. Certainly in the Passover story, it is death which grips our attention, and death which lends urgency to our story, starting with the Israelite children being tossed in the Nile, and ending with the messianic conclusion to Chad Gadya, when God kills the killer angel, signaling the complete redemption of which we dream.  

Some say that the origin for the Ashkenazi custom of opening the door at the mention of Elijah toward the seder’s end is to show that we are unafraid of evil spirits roaming outside in the night. Passover eve is a “night of protections” (leil shimurim), and it brings us close enough to a sense of security to imagine that one day we too will become impervious to death. One day, perhaps, but for now we understand the seder to be a “night of watchfulness” when we train ourselves to become guardians, shomrim. There are enormous dangers in our world today, and the seder is our time to name them and face them with courage, even as our ancestors faced the threats of their time. 

At the seder that I am leading tomorrow night at Camp Ramah in California, I will speak of the threat to American society posed by deep patterns of racial bias and discrimination, as chronicled in the recent Department of Justice report regarding Ferguson. And I will speak of the rising tide of anti-Semitism, especially in Europe, where Jews have been targeted and killed this year in Paris and Copenhagen, and many are threatened simply for being Jewish. Indeed, we cannot miss the signs of a rising tide of violence convulsing the Muslim world, with victims singled out for being Jewish, Christian, or the wrong kind of Muslim. Many people today prefer to look away from these threats and the very real threats facing the State of Israel. On Pesah we commit ourselves not to look away, not to evade responsibility, and not to tolerate injustice and bigotry. May we emulate the courage and conviction of R’ Yeshoshua b. Levi, an heir of Elijah who contended with the angel of death, and so may we bring our world a little closer to redemption this Pesah. Shabbat shalom, and Hag kasher v’sameah,


משלי פרק ה פסוק יט 

אַיֶּלֶת אֲהָבִים וְיַעֲלַת־חֵן דַּדֶּיהָ יְרַוֻּךָ בְכָל־עֵת בְּאַהֲבָתָהּ תִּשְׁגֶּה תָמִיד: 

תלמוד בבלי מסכת כתובות דף עז עמוד ב 

ריב”ל מיכרך בהו ועסיק בתורה, אמר: אילת אהבים ויעלת חן – אם חן מעלה על לומדיה, אגוני לא מגנא? כי הוה שכיב, אמרו ליה למלאך המות: זיל עביד ליה רעותיה. אזל איתחזי ליה, א”ל: אחוי לי דוכתאי, אמר ליה: לחיי. א”ל: הב לי סכינך, דלמא מבעתת לי באורחא, יהבה ניהליה. כי מטא להתם, דלייה קא מחוי ליה, שוור נפל לההוא גיסא, נקטיה בקרנא דגלימיה, א”ל: בשבועתא דלא אתינא. אמר קודשא בריך הוא: אי איתשיל אשבועתא ניהדר, אי לא – לא ניהדר. אמר ליה: הב לי סכינאי, לא הוה קא יהיב ליה, נפקא בת קלא ואמרה ליה: הב ניהליה, דמיתבעא לברייתא. מכריז אליהו קמיה: פנו מקום לבר ליואי, פנו מקום לבר ליואי. אזל אשכחיה לר’ שמעון בן יוחאי דהוה יתיב על תלת עשר תכטקי פיזא, אמר ליה: את הוא בר ליואי? אמר ליה: הן. נראתה קשת בימיך? אמר ליה: הן, אם כן אי אתה בר ליואי. ולא היא, דלא הואי מידי, אלא סבר: לא אחזיק טיבותא לנפשאי. 

מהרש”א חידושי אגדות מסכת כתובות דף עז עמוד ב 

ואמר כי מטא להתם דלייה כו’ כמ”ד דג”ע בעוה”ז כדאמר במסכת תמיד ויש לו מחיצות גבוהות שהוצרך להגביהו ואמר אי אתשיל אשבועתי’ כו’ ולא קאמר דאי עבר אשבועתו דהא ודאי איסורא לא עביד וא”נ הוה עבר אשבועתיה לא הוה קאמר דליעבר נמי השתא למעבד איסורא אלא למתשל:

א”ל הב לי סכינאי לא הוה קיהיב כו’. משום דעדיין היה ירא לנפשו עד דא”ל דמתבעא לברייתא דהיינו לבריות אחרים:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת תמיד דף לב עמוד ב 

עד דמטא לפתחא דגן עדן, רמא קלא: פתחו לי בבא! אמרו ליה: זה השער לה’ וגו’. אמר להון: אנא נמי מלכא אנא, מיחשב חשיבנא, הבו לי מידי! יהבו ליה 

גולגלתא חדא, אתייה תקליה לכוליה דהבא וכספא דידיה בהדיה – לא הוה מתקליה.

מלכים ב פרק ב, יא-יב 

(יא) וַיְהִי הֵמָּה הֹלְכִים הָלוֹךְ וְדַבֵּר וְהִנֵּה רֶכֶב־אֵשׁ וְסוּסֵי אֵשׁ וַיַּפְרִדוּ בֵּין שְׁנֵיהֶם וַיַּעַל אֵלִיָּהוּ בַּסְּעָרָה הַשָּׁמָיִם: (יב) וֶאֱלִישָׁע רֹאֶה וְהוּא מְצַעֵק אָבִי אָבִי רֶכֶב יִשְׂרָאֵל וּפָרָשָׁיו וְלֹא רָאָהוּ עוֹד וַיַּחֲזֵק בִּבְגָדָיו וַיִּקְרָעֵם לִשְׁנַיִם קְרָעִים:  

בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשת בראשית פרשה ט 

בתורתו של רבי מאיר מצאו כתוב, והנה טוב מאד והנה טוב מות