Talmud pages

Bava Kamma 100

The core of our existence.

When Jethro came to visit his son-in-law Moses in the desert, he observed Moses trying to lead the Israelites all by himself — an enormous task. As Jethro himself quickly observes, “You represent the people before God: you bring the disputes before God, and enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow” (Exodus 18:19-20).

Talk about a workload that could lead to burnout! 

On today’s daf, Rav Yosef offers a rabbinic interpretation of this workload:

“And you shall make known to them” — this is the core of their existence. “The way” — this is acts of kindness. “They are to go” — this is visiting the sick. “That” — this is burial. “The practices” — this is the law. “That they are to follow” — this is beyond the letter of the law. 

For Rav Yosef, each element of the verse points to a different mitzvah that Moses was responsible for, from general acts of kindness to specific mitzvot like visiting the sick and burying the dead. “The core of their existence” is a strange formulation. It appears in the Talmud only twice — here and in Bava Metzia 30b — both times in this quote attributed to Rav Yosef. (It also appears twice in an early midrash, as part of the same quoted tradition, this time attributed to Rabbi Elazar HaModa’i.) While it gets quoted numerous times by later commentators, Rashi is the earliest commentator that I’ve found who offers an explanation of exactly what it means. He explains that  “the core of their existence,” refers to teaching Torah (in Hebrew Talmud Torah)

There’s something particularly powerful about this formulation. After all, even if it was obvious that the core of one’s existence was Torah-related, Rashi could have suggested that it was the study of Torah (Limmud Torah) or just Torah, full stop. Given that the context of the verse is Moses, the original teacher of Torah, this interpretation makes sense. But the rabbis of the Talmud go on to use this verse to discuss the behaviors that everyone (or at least every rabbi) should undertake. And Rashi insists that list includes the teaching of Torah.

What might it mean to see the core of one’s existence as teaching Torah? As someone who is a professional teacher, I can tell you that it likely involves extensive preparation and training — teaching is a privilege and a responsibility, and deserves to be treated seriously. It also requires acknowledging your own strengths (what you have to teach) and where you are still learning (and where you too need to find a teacher!). Ultimately, it requires recognizing that no one is fixed in their amount of knowledge and understanding; we all have the capacity to learn and grow.

Everyone around you is a potential student, paying attention and learning from you, whether you intend it or not. And everyone around you is also a Torah teacher, with much Torah to share with each of us if we are paying attention. Seeing oneself as a teacher of Torah is thus a way of framing the community as a whole as learners, on a shared journey of developing our knowledge, the core of our existence. 

In the story in Exodus, Jethro concludes his description of Moses’ workload by pointing out that it is unrealistic to take total responsibility for all of these tasks for the entire community of Israelites; he convinces Moses to appoint intermediate functionaries who will share in the responsibility and ease Moses’ burden. What started out as one man’s task ultimately becomes the task of the community as a whole.  

Read all of Bava Kamma 100 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 10th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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