Between the Lines

I often invite grief counseling clients to write letters to their beloveds after their beloveds have died. This is a letter I imagine that Rabbi Yohanan might write to Reish Lakish, after Reish Lakish has died. This letter is based on the text of Bava Metzia 84a.

Dear Resh Lakish,

I think about you when I walk by the Jordan River. I haven’t been able to swim since you died. It’s so cold, and my body feels like a rock, heavy with the absence of you. If I were to enter the Jordan now, I, too, would descend, without your laughter to lift me.

I often wonder why you jumped in after me that day. You were a pirate, a highway robber, a bandit – what did you want with a Torah scholar? You must have known I like the chase -the challenge – just like you did. You must have seen the pirate inside of me, just as I saw the scholar inside of you. That’s why you were too weak to return the shore to get your armor. When we saw each other, in our totality – me, seeing the scholar in you, and you, seeing the bandit in me…we disarmed each other. Now when I try to see myself the way you saw me, it’s as though I can’t see at all. I have been blinded by the loss of your gaze. 

I knew I couldn’t give you my own hand, so I gave you my sister’s instead. I think she understood, even if we never spoke the truth to one another. She never protested when we spent the night protesting one another’s arguments in the Beit Midrash. How I long to wrap you in just one more line of text, to entangle myself in your words again, to push and pull and resist, to tease out one last spark of wisdom. I was an accomplished scholar before I met you, but learning with you elevated my experience in ways I never could have imagined. 

Reish Lasish, Reish Lakish, it’s all my fault. I’m a stubborn and angry fool. You knew it and you loved me anyways. I’ll never forgive myself for what I did to you. What I did to us. 

The others thought it was about the question in front of us. But there was so much more than that. The sword, the knife, the dagger, the spear, a hand sickle, and a harvest sickle, from when are they susceptible to ritual impurity? From the time of completion of their manufacture. When is the completion of their manufacture? 

What makes a sword, a sword? When does a dagger become a dagger? What makes a man into a man? A thief into a scholar? A scholar into a lover? When does it begin? When is the transformation complete? You knew your weapons like I knew my words, and we knew how to wield them against each other. But we never knew when to stop. 

Our final words slashed through the air, clanged against one another. I can hear them still. “What benefit did you provide me,” you taunted. “There, they called me: Leader. Here, they call me: Leader.” Your words cut deep into my soul. Did I not transform you, as you transformed me? As the spear is transformed at the completion of its manufacture? “I provided benefit to you,” I said, “under the wings of the Divine Presence.” I couldn’t contain my tears, so I turned away from you. If I’d known that was the last time I would see you alive, I would have held your gaze. Even a blurred vision of you, blinded with my own tears, would grant me greater clarity than I have now. 

When my sister came to beg me to pray for your recovery, my pride was too great. I couldn’t do it for me – so I couldn’t do it for her, or for her children. I’ll never forgive myself. The rabbis sent Elazar ben Pedat to comfort me, saying “his statements are sharp.” Sharp like the daggers and knives and swords of our final argument? Sharp enough to sharpen my argument, as you always did? 

No. There was no one like you. He offered me a baraita to support my opinion. To support me! I didn’t need his support, or his baraita. I needed YOU. You would have cut through my answers. You would have raised 24 difficulties against me. I would have given you 24 answers. The halacha would have broadened. 

You would have seen what I could not. You always did. And now you are gone. 

I keep calling out to you, searching for your voice in my throat. But I only hear my own.

I look for you between the lines of text in the Beit Midrash, but I get entangled in my thoughts. I can’t pull the letters apart. They blur together without you to sharpen my gaze.

I write this letter in hopes that I might find you in my pen, but I am alone. 

No one sees me. No one can reach me.

Perhaps I’ll try the Jordan River again. Maybe I’ll descend…

Searching for you until I find myself again,

Rabbi Yohanan

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