Billy Planer is the director of Etgar, which means “challenge” in Hebrew. I learned about him, online, through his participation in the ELI talks, a Jewish version of the TED talks. Etgar is a summer camp that takes Jewish teens to different locations in the United States. These teen agers meet people who are quite unlike them, people from different socio-economic backgrounds, different religions, different races, as well as different ethnicities and political views. Billy Planer developed this idea after thinking about all the trouble we have in our world – the war, the terrorism, the discrimination in all its pernicious forms. What if, he thought, instead of acting out of fear, mistrust, and ignorance, people put their energies into trying to understand one another? Would we be able to make the world a better place? The object of these trips is to expose adolescents to different points of view, to teach them to dialogue with those with whom they might disagree, and to challenge their preconceived notions of what is true. It also gives these campers the opportunity to challenge others, and to help find things in common with those who at first seem to be so much unlike them.
Acting out of fear, mistrust and ignorance is nothing new. In our Torah portion for this week, Moses confronts a rebellion led by Korach, Datan and Aviram. Taking advantage of the collapse of morale following the failure of the Israelites to enter the the Land of Canaan, they attempt to depose Moses and Aaron as leaders. Moses tries to talk to them, to understand their concerns – which, on the surface seem legitimate — and perhaps help them to understand his side. In other words, Moses wants to dialogue, and to speak words of peace. But, the Torah tells us, they refuse to talk.
As we also know, the Talmud is full of disputes between the sages. This evening I want to tell you about two of the Talmud’s most famous friends and adversaries — Rabbi Yochanan and his student, Reish Lakish. Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish come from totally different backgrounds. Rabbi Yochanan began his studies as a child under the greatest rabbi of his time, Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Nasi. He grew up immersed in Torah learning. Reish Lakish, on the other hand lived the life of an outlaw. He was reputed to have had great physical strength as well as a wild, even violent nature. A chance meeting with Rabbi Yochanan led Reish Lakish to abandon his life as a bandit to study Torah. The two men, teacher and student, became fast friends. Reish Lakish even marries Rabbi Yochanan’s sister. He matures into a formidable scholar in his own right, and his reputation as a great man grows. One day Rabbi Yochanan encounters Resh Lakish in the study house lecturing students on a matter of halacha. Rabbi Yochanan disagrees with Resh Lakish’s conclusions. The argument over the point of Jewish law between the two becomes heated and insults begin to fly. Both men become physically ill. Reish Lakish’s wife is called to the House of Study. Seeing her husband so sick, she pleads with her brother, Rabbi Yochanan, to pray on his behalf. But Rabbi Yochanan, still angry with Reish Lakish refuses. Reish Lakish died.
When Rabbi Yochanan realizes what has happened he became inconsolable. His colleagues wonder what they could do for him. “Send Rabbi ben Pedat, a brilliant scholar, to sit with him,” suggests one of them. So, Rabbi ben Pedat goes to study with Rabbi Yochanan. Whenever Rabbi Yochanan would say something, Rabbi ben Pedat would bring a text to support his teaching. But this makes Rabbi Yochanan miss Reish Lakish all the more. “When I would say something to Reish Lakish,” he would say “he would bring me 24 objections to which I would give 24 solutions. All you do is bring me texts that support me. Don’t you think I know I am right?”
The Talmud is silent about the underlying feelings that might have led to the disagreement that fateful day. Ruth Calderon, an Israeli scholar, suggests that Rabbi Yochanan may have felt a growing resentment for his student’s reputation as a teacher, and his popularity among the students of the beit midrash. Perhaps his student Resh Lakish had a charisma that his teacher Rabbi Yochanan envied. At the same time, she posits, Reish Lakish may have begun to realize how much of his personality, that part of himself that enjoyed the freedom and mischief of being an outlaw in his younger years, had to be submerged in order to be accepted in these scholarly circles. The feelings of both men, long submerged, erupt suddenly and unexpectedly, with tragic results.
Engaging with those who have opinions different from our own can be a rewarding experience. As we can see in this story, Rabbi Yochanan values Reish Lakish precisely because the two hold very different points of views. Those respective differences could very well have stemmed from their coming from totally different backgrounds. When the sages try to find Rabbi Yochanan another study partner, Rabbi Yochanan rejects him. He doesn’t want someone to agree with him. He wants someone to challenge him.
Exposure to different points of view, reaching out to those who are different from us, can be a highly rewarding experience. It can help us grow as people, sharpen our intellect, expand our horizons, bring us closer to the truth, and foster understanding and peace. But whether it is a marriage, a friendship, a business partnership or teens reaching across the socio-economic or religious divide, exposure to different points of view is not without its perils, its risks and its pain. It can be a challenge in more ways than one. It is, nevertheless, imperative – for the future of our community, for the future of our nation, and for the future of the world — that we try. Hate cannot drive out hate, said Martin Luther King ….. only love and understanding can do that.