”רבי זירא כי הוה סליק לא”י, לא אשכח מברא למעבר, נקט במצרא וקעבר. אמר ליה ההוא צדוקי: עמא פזיזא דקדמיתו פומייכו לאודנייכו, אכתי בפזיזותייכו קיימיתו! אמר ליה: דוכתא דמשה ואהרן לא זכו לה, אנא מי יימר דזכינא לה!”
When Rabbi Zera ascended to the Land of Israel, he could not find a ferry with which to cross (the River Jordan), so he grasped a rope bridge and crossed. Thereupon a certain Sadducee sneered at him: “You are an impulsive people, who put your mouths before your ears, you are still, as ever, clinging to your impulsiveness.” He replied: “The place which Moshe and Aaron did not merit entering, who could assure me that I should be worthy of entering?”
[Gemara Ketubot 112a]
Upon reaching Eretz Yisrael, Rabbi Zera did not find a ferry to cross the Jordan and in his haste to enter the Land, took the risk of crossing on a rope bridge. A Sadducee said to Rabbi Zera: “You are an impulsive people; as at the time of receiving Torah, when you put your mouths ahead of your ears and said ‘We shall do and listen,’ so your current behavior is impulsive.” Rabbi Zera’s response to the Sadducee was that had he waited he may not have been privileged to enter the Land; after all, Moshe and Aaron, despite their great accomplishments were not privileged to enter the Land.
The Question: What is Rabbi Zera’s Answer?
Apparently, Rabbi Zera provided only a partial answer to the Sadducee’s comment. While Rabbi Zera explained his apparently impulsive behavior, he did not relate to the claim that the Jews are historically impulsive. Apparently, Rabbi Zera completely ignored this claim.
The Parallel Story of Rava
In order to better understand Rabbi Zera’s response, we will cite an additional story in which a Sadducee makes the same claim. The Talmud [Shabbat 88a-b] relates that a Sadducee saw Rava engrossed in his studies while the fingers of his hand were under his feet, and he ground them down, so that his fingers spurted blood. The Sadducee said to Rava “You are an impulsive people who gave precedence to your mouth over your ears and you persist in your impulsiveness. You should have first listened (at Mount Sinai), if it was appropriate, you should have accepted; if not, you should not have accepted.” Rava responded: “We, who walked in integrity, of us it is written, ‘The integrity of the upright shall guide them,’ [Mishlei (Proverbs) 11:3] but of others, who walked in perversity, it is written, ‘But the perverseness of the treacherous shall destroy them.’” [Ibid.] Rava’s answer is that Israel acted in good faith, trusting that God would not require us to do things beyond our ability, while you, who had no faith, your perverseness will destroy you.
In each of the stories a Sadducee criticizes a Talmudic scholar for irresponsible behavior which creates bodily harm. Rava hurt himself without being aware of it, while Rabbi Zera risked his life in crossing the Jordan. (We may note that Rabbi Zera had a weak body. The Talmud [Bava Metzia 85a] relates that when Rabbi Zera ascended to Israel he fasted one hundred fasts that he forget the teachings of Babylonia. [Though it is unclear whether these hundred fasts preceded or followed Rabbi Zera’s aliya, the Talmud there refers to an additional two hundred fasts that Rabbi Zera fasted.])
The Difference Between Rava’s Answer and That of Rabbi Zera
Despite the similarities in the two Talmudic stories, the answers of each of the scholars highlight the difference between the stories.
Rava presented the concept of integrity. The Sadducee, in effect said “Think before you act, consider your steps before making them.” In life in general, this is good advice. However, Rava’s response conveys a deep element of simple and sincere faith. ”תמים תהיה עם ד’ אלוקיך” (“Be wholehearted with the Lord, your God”) [Devarim (Deuteronomy) 18:13] is the essence of Rava’s approach. Rava refused to accept the Sadducee’s underlying assumption that it is necessary to examine all sides of an issue before acting, and in matters related to serving God, he prefers to be “wholehearted” even if the result is blood spurting from his fingers.
Rabbi Zera answered the Sadducee on a different plane that Rava. Rabbi Zera accepted the Sadducee’s argument and agreed that in an ideal situation he indeed would have waited for a ferry, and in an ideal situation, Israel would have listened to the contents of Torah and only then given God its answer whether it was willing to accept Torah. How then, did Rabbi Zera answer the Sadducee?
Rabbi Zera’s answer is actually quite sophisticated: “Precisely because I have considered and understood the conditions of reality, I choose to act in an impulsive manner.” Perhaps we can phrase Rabbi Zera’s answer thus: “To wait a few minutes? Who can guarantee that I will be able to cross in another few minutes? I am under pressure (to cross immediately) because it is not a simple matter, because of the uncertainty; after all, Moshe and Aaron did not enter the Land. One who hesitates loses.”
The claim of the Sadducee sounds like it conveys hesitation and a certain level of caution, requiring waiting and a new assessment of events. However, Rabbi Zera’s response conveys an even greater level of caution, “I am so cautious that I cannot allow the opportunity to slip away.” Rabbi Zera was able to free himself of hesitation and to make his decision in the same terms the Sadducee used.
Rabbi Zera’s Response: Impulsivity is the rational Choice
Rabbi Zera’s response applies as well to the Sadducee’s claim that Israel is an impulsive people; his response is not a personal and limited explanation of his behavior in crossing the Jordan, but accords fully with Am Yisrael’s declaration “נעשה ונשמע” (“We shall do and listen”). Chazal (Our Sages) taught that at the time of the presentation of Torah, God offered the Torah to each of the nations, every one of whom hesitated and asked what is written in it. The nations’ hesitation prevented them from accepting Torah, just as if Rabbi Zera had hesitated before crossing the Jordan it might have prevented his entering the Land. Thus, Rabbi Zera chose to act immediately, despite the element of danger.
We learned the story of Rabbi Zera’s ascent to Israel and his refusal to wait for a ferry, wondering about his response to the Sadducee’s claim that he acted in an impulsive manner as the Israelites had at Mount Sinai.
Contrasting the similar story of Rava allowed us to understand the difference in approaches of the two Torah scholars. Rava suggested that integrity and wholeheartedness put the lie to the Sadducee’s argument. Rabbi Zera, on the other hand, accepted the Sadducee’s claim, but argued that what appears as irrational impulsiveness can actually be the proper course of action when all factors are considered. It is entirely possible that the fear of missing an opportunity overcomes the element of danger. Devotion to the goal is revealed as being worthwhile.
In our times, Jews may enter Eretz Yisrael without encountering risks such as that taken by Rabbi Zera, and it is appropriate for all Jews to consider the opportunity to enter the Land which was denied to Moshe and Aaron.