Memorial Evening 2016

5776/2016 Memorial Evening of learning
held to mark the 21st Yahrzeit of Etta Ehrman Kossowsky z.l.

It was amazing to see the hall fill up, once again, with friends and family on this, the 21st Yahrzeit of Etta Yonit, z.l. Bat moreinu haRav Zvi Ehrman.

Welcome by Esther Ehrman

Esther Ehrman welcomed the guests to this Evening of Learning, stressing that all Torah learning always, surprisingly, seemed to be connected. Thus, in the current Messechet of the Daf Yomi cycle, a recurring theme in Messechet Gittin was tikkun olam; - we are very careful to ensure the correct identity on a Get, for example, or our Sages enacted the prosbul, 'mipnei tikkun ha olam' (so that the world may be repaired/sustained). To Etta, who scribbled 'You shall do that which is right and good in eyes of the Lord' all over her notebooks, this would certainly apply to learning Torah.

Esther briefly referred to the annual deficit of the Etta Kossowsky Fund -a summary of the figures was available in the entrance hall. She then introduced the guest speaker, Rabbanit Nechama Goldman Barash, a much appreciated scholar and teacher of Gemara - and a good friend of Etta's.

'Rain, rain, go away' - Honi the Rain Maker, a Seventy Year Nap And How We Were As Dreamers by Rabbanit Barash

Rabbanit Barash gave us a fascinating analysis of how different written records of an oral narrative vary in terms of what is remembered, that is to say, are seen by memory as significant.

The title of Nechama's talk was 'Rain,rain, go away' - Honi the Rain Maker, a Seventy Year Nap And How We Were As Dreamers. The well known story, recorded by the Mishna in Messechet Ta'anit, tells how the people approached Honi, asking him to pray for rain to end a drought; how he beseeches HaKadosh Baruch Hu and does not move outside the circle he has drawn around himself until he is granted rain in abundance. The only reaction given in the text is one by Shimon ben Shetach who is critical of this way of asking for the blessing of rain - presumably because such a blessing ought to have been granted as a reward for our moral conduct, not because we begged for it. In this version, Honi is the 'circle drawer' - the word ha me'agel could mean 'roof roller', a simple man, perhaps a miracle worker, a character familiar to the contemporary literature; he is approached by the people, not by the establishment.

In the Yerushalmi version, Honi has a higher status; here, he is approached by 'his students', he is likened to the prophet Habakkuk, is addressed as 'Rebbi' and, in his prayer, uses phrases that Moses might have used: 'Your people that You took out of Egypt'.

There is another part of the Honi story, not directly connected to the rain episode, where Honi sleeps for seventy years and wakes to a changed world, - a subject that figures in the culture of many lands. The Yerushalmi introduces a second Honi, a grandson and gives him the part of drawing of the circle and the prayer for rain. As in other versions, Honi has a problem of being recognised after seventy years. Here, he is tested: the first Honi was known to have caused the area of the Temple to light up and, since he can re-enact this, he is recognised.

In the Bavli version, there is no such test. The 70 years are rationalised, in that Honi sees a farmer planting a carob tree and learns from the farmer that it takes seventy years for a carob tree to bear fruit. Then he goes to the House of learning, hears the people speak of the wisdom of the long gone Honi, but is not accepted there as being that person. He prays to G-d for mercy and dies. Again, the two versions reflect two perspectives, Honi in the Temple and the scholar Honi of the House of Learning (Beit Midrash), Honi's end, positive or tragic.

Nechama had opened her talk by telling how, one Shabbat, she had been invited by people she did not know and they turned out to be best friends of Etta's, whereupon they had shared their memories of her. Then and now, in these special evenings, many of us recall Etta, especially moments that have particular significance for us.

'Devar Torah' by Eli Ehrman

Eli Ehrman, Etta's brother, thanked Nechama; he appreciated how truly meaningful her talk was for him, coming from someone who really knew Etta z.l.

Eli's devar Torah was a very personal one. He recalled the inspiration he had derived from his interaction with Rav Aharon Lichtenstein as a yeshiva student. Comparing Rav Aharon to a lighthouse in a storm, vital for life but set in danger, Eli focused on one idea that characterised Rav Aharon's thinking,one that is a beacon of light, yet fraught with danger, namely that Divine Truth can be achieved from human logical thinking. It can lead to genuine insight into the meaning of HaKadosh Baruch Hu's Torah; it can also mislead one into thinking one knows better than the great commentators. Rav Aharon's idea might be reflected in the statement found in the talmudic statement: R.Shimon darash tam ha mikra. Eli's illustration was a discussion in the Gemara on the special sensitivity required when guaranteeing the loan for a widow ["You shall not ... take a widow's garment as pledge" Deut 24,17], Such sensitivity, R. Shimon suggests, is required here, because the Torah is speaking of a poor widow's needs; R.Yehuda disagrees: it just says 'widow' [Bava Metzia 115a]; it is not, as it were, up to us to limit the mitzva. Eli explained that the content of the verse itself indicated that the widow needed to be looked after. R.Shimon was learning the moral perspective from the verse and not, as is frequently done, finding a verse to back up a teaching. And he was not taking liberties based on his own views, but making an informed judgment, based a vast knowledge of Torah. The Gemara frequently takes this approach, an example being its justification for seemingly countering a Torah law, as it did its enactment of the prosbul, for the sake of tikkun olam, repairing the world. The ideas, Eli concluded, were very much ideas that Etta identified with. Young as she was, her views were clear cut and passionate; she did not have the profoundly learned wisdom of Rav Lichtenstein.

The evening ended with time for refreshments and friendly exchanges of greetings and views.