Heroism and the Gavra Raba(1)
It is difficult for a child to give an appropriate appraisal of his/her parents. Sometimes it is the intimacy of people which makes it impossible to fully grasp the greatness of another person. Too much familiarity causes too little appreciation. Only when some kind of separation has set in and the other is no longer immediately available, do thoughts break through which allow a better understanding of those who have been the closest to us.
If there is a way that I could best describe my mother a’h’, it is by quoting a Talmudic passage which has always puzzled me.
The Talmud in Makkoth 22b discusses the identity of a “Gavra Raba”, a really great human being. It quotes a most remarkable observation by the well known sage Rava who states: “How foolish are some people who stand up out of respect for a Sefer Torah but do not stand up out of respect for a Gavra Raba, an exceptionally great person.” When asked what is so exceptionally great about a Gavra Raba, Rava does not explain this to be someone with a remarkably vast knowledge of Torah, or even somebody with outstanding ethical and religious qualities. Instead he describes a Gavra Raba as someone who has the power and courage to change the obvious and literal meaning of a commandment in the Torah.
The example which Rava gives is most telling:
While the Torah commands the Jewish Court to administer 40 lashes for certain offenses (Devarim 25, 2-3) the Rabbis reduced them to 39.(2) This courage to change the literal meaning of the text, says Rava, is what makes them into exceptionally great people. They recognized their own authority as people who were invested with the power to interpret the biblical text in accordance with the spirit of the Oral Torah, which gave them the right, and even obligation, to change the literal meaning of certain biblical texts, when it became clear that a deeper reading of the text and its spirit called for such a move. In this case they concluded that the number 40 could not be taken literally and should therefore be reduced to 39 and it is for this reason that Rava maintains that these sages should be even more respected than the actual Sefer Torah, the biblical text. After all, the text is only the frozen aspect, or outer garment of a living organism, the essential Torah. It is only in the Oral Torah, as explained by the sages, that the real meaning of the Torah becomes apparent.
However, this cannot be the whole significance of Rava’s statement. If the greatness of the sages is revealed in their willingness to change the meaning of a text (as described above), one should ask why Rava did not quote the first case ever mentioned in the Torah, where the sages reduced a specific biblical number to a lesser number, thereby proving that this too makes them really great people?
After all, it is well known that the sages altered the number 50 into 49 on an earlier occasion. This is in the case of the “Omer” counting where the Torah requires counting a full 50 days between the first day of Pesach and Shavuoth, whereas the text appears to order the Jews to celebrate Shavuot on the 51st day. However, after carefully studying the text, the sages reduced these days to 49 and stated that the 50th day itself should be Shavuoth. (Vayikra 23:16; Torath Cohanim ad loc). Remarkable is the fact that, in this case, Rava does not state that their willingness and courage to reduce these days turned them into exceptionally great men (Gavra Raba). This is indeed most surprising, since it is the Talmud’s custom to always bring proof for a specific teaching from the earliest biblical source possible, never a later one. In this case, however, it brings proof for the sages’ courage from a verse mentioned later in the Torah (in Devarim)! This is somehow perplexing. Why did they not use the verse in Vayikra?
It has been suggested that changing the meaning of the biblical text or a reduction of a number does not always make a person into a Gavra Raba. What makes somebody into a Gavra Raba is when he or she reduces the pain of one’s fellow man! When a sage finds, through biblical interpretation, ways to decrease the legal punishment of another human being, only then are we able to speak about a Gavra Raba, an exceptional great man.
In the above mentioned case of the 40 lashes that the Torah specifies when certain offenses have been perpetrated, it is an act of mercy to find ways to reduce the offender’s sentence and administer only 39. Such initiative and courage shows absolute moral greatness. But in the case of reducing 50 days to 49, thereby making the celebration of Shavuoth one day earlier, this does not entail a reduction of human pain and consequently the Talmud or Rava does not see such a sage as a Gavra Raba, however brilliant he may be. (3)
I cannot think of a better way to describe my mother other than by means of the above mentioned Talmudic observation.
During the Holocaust my mother took upon herself to hide numerous Jews in her home in Amsterdam, including my father’s almost entire family and this continued for several years. Analogous to the case of the Anne Frank, she hid them behind cupboards, bookcases, double walls and under the floor. On many occasions, when the infamous “razzia’s” (raids) in Amsterdam took place, when the Nazi’s rounded up tens of thousands of Jews and sent them to Auschwitz, Dachau and other crematoria, the Nazis would enter her home and search for Jews. On all occasions, and despite the grave danger to her life, she threw them out thereby saving all of her “tenants”. At other times she would make dangerous trips to find food for them all, unfortunately sometimes without success, such as when she was robbed on the way by the Nazis or Dutch collaborators (of which there were many.) Also, both below and above her home there lived Dutch gentiles belonging to the “National Social Bund” who used to inform the Nazis where Jews were hidden. She even succeeded in pulling the wool over their eyes and not one of her occupants was ever caught.
By so doing, not only did my mother save the Jews who actually hid in her home, but she had the merit to see children and grandchildren and great grandchildren of all those she had saved. Today several of them live as proud Jews who send their children and grandchildren to Jewish schools and raise them in the spirit of the Jewish tradition. Others have dedicated their lives to helping retarded children, difficult families and other cases of human suffering. It is as if all of them decided to continue to live in her spirit to reduce the pain of their fellowmen.
As such she fulfilled the task of a Gavra Raba.
May her memory be blessed.
(1) Introductory words spoken at a lecture in her memory on the occasion of the “sheloshim” at the Israel Center in Yerushalayim on Shevat 26, 5767, February, 14, 2007.
(2)) Jewish Law in earlier days sometimes asked, under very specific circumstances, for physical lashes, but only when the offender would be able to endure them without risking his life or health. It sometimes therefore happened that the court could only administer a few lashes since more would create a health problem. Torment is completely prohibited, even to a criminal.
(3)). The above idea is based on an oral teaching which was transmitted to me in the name of one of the Chassidic leaders before the Holocaust whom I was not able to identify.