Sotah 49

There is still me.

It is not uncommon for a talmudic tractate to end with a spiritual crescendo. Today, Tractate Sotah heads in the opposite direction. 

For several pages now, the rabbis have been outlining their view of yeridat hadorot — the decline of generations. We learned that the ritual of sotah was nullified even before the destruction of the Temple made the whole matter moot because of the proliferation of adulterers in the world. With so many people fearlessly and flagrantly flouting the sanctity of marriage, the rabbis reasoned, there were few cases of doubtful guilt. On an even darker note, we also learned that the ritual of eglah arufah — breaking the neck of a heifer to atone for the death of a murdered person whose killer was unknown — was nullified in later generations because of the proliferation of brazen murderers. Dark times.

Today, in our final mishnah, we learn that it wasn’t just that criminals became more numerous and less ashamed of their crimes. It was also the case that new generations of sages were unable to match the piety and brilliance of their predecessors:

When Rabbi Meir died, those who relate parables ceased. 

When ben Azzai died, the diligent ceased.

When ben Zoma died, the exegetists ceased.

When Rabbi Akiva died, the honor of the Torah ceased.

When Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa died, the men of wondrous action ceased.

When Rabbi Yosei the Small died, the pious were no more. And why was he called the Small? Because he was the smallest of the pious.

When Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai died, the glory of wisdom ceased.

When Rabban Gamliel the Elder died, the honor of the Torah ceased, and purity and asceticism died.

When Rabbi Yishmael ben Pavi died, the glory of the priesthood ceased.

When Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi died, humility and fear of sin ceased.

When each of these individual rabbis died, the light of their special spiritual and intellectual talents went out and was never replaced. We now find summary statements that try to make sense of the dolorous litany, including this:

Rabbi Eliezer the Great says: From the day the Second Temple was destroyed, the generations have deteriorated: Scholars have begun to become like scribes, scribes have become like beadles, beadles have become like ignoramuses, and ignoramuses are increasingly diminished. None ask and none seek. 

Sanctity, piety and intellectual rigor are lacking in later generations. Why? All because people do not seek or ask. Curiosity, striving toward heaven, thoughtfulness — these are the keys.

And yet, according to Rabbi Eliezer the Great, this sordid state of the world may be a cause for hope, because things have to get really bad before they can permanently turn around:

In the approach of the messiah, impudence will increase and high costs will pile up. The vine shall bring forth its fruit, but wine will nevertheless be expensive. And the monarchy shall turn to heresy, and there will be no one to give reproof. The meeting place of the sages will become a place of promiscuity, and the Galilee shall be destroyed, and the Gavlan will be desolate, and the men of the border shall go round from city to city (to seek charity), but they will find no mercy.

And the wisdom of scribes will putrefy, and people who fear sin will be held in disgust, and the truth will be absent. The youth will shame the face of elders, elders will stand before minors. A son will disgrace a father; a daughter will rise up against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s enemies will be the members of his household. The face of the generation will be like the face of a dog; a son will no longer be ashamed before his father. And upon what is there for us to rely? Only upon our Father in heaven.

This dystopian description may resonate for us in many ways: Elders are no longer respected, sin is no longer feared, a person cannot trust their own family, the economy makes no sense, the government is corrupt and no one holds it accountable. But as generations of Jews did before him, Rabbi Eliezer the Great turns that terror into hope by declaring that the darkest of times are necessary to herald the messiah. Perhaps, he suggests, what his generation is witnessing are the birth pangs.

We know now that they were not; we still wait for redemption. And as we wait, we turn to the final lines of the Gemara in this tractate, which recount yet more sages who left the world and took with them irreplaceable talent, finally circling back to Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, the sage who compiled the Mishnah:

When Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi died, humility and fear of sin ceased.

Rav Yosef said to the tanna (who read this mishnah aloud): Do not teach that humility ceased, for there is still me.

Rav Nahman said to the tanna: Do not teach that fear of sin ceased, for there is still me.

Rav Yosef and Rav Nahman challenge the tanna, the person whose job it was to be a living book, to memorize and recite, on command, any portion of the Mishnah. Don’t teach that humility has left the world, they tell him. Don’t teach that fear of sin is gone. We embody those qualities. There is still us.

Yeridat hadorot, the decline of generations, is not a foregone conclusion. Each new generation holds the possibility of bringing greater knowledge, wisdom, piety and sanctity into the world. Like Rav Yosef and Rav Nahman, we can decide to be that generation. And the roadmap is there on today’s page: All it takes is for us to ask, to seek, and to rely on our Parent in Heaven. And then declare: “There is still me.”

Read all of Sotah 49 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 17th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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