Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
An intense debate erupted in the Beis Medrash. According to the Gemara, the debate spanned at least three decades (Bava Kama 67b). The debate was so long that there were three different Roshei Yeshiva during this time. In fact, four of the sages involved in the discussion were all destined to become the Rosh HaYeshiva. One wonders if any of them could have envisioned at the time that they would all succeed one another as the Rosh HaYeshiva. The four future Roshei Yeshiva were: Rabba, Rav Yosef, Abaya, and Rava. The discussion centered around a seemingly simple question: when a thief steals an item, he has an obligation as part of his teshuva process to return the stolen item. If the thief no longer has the item, he must provide monetary restitution. If he has the original item, he must return it and cannot give money in its place. The question arose regarding a situation where the victim despaired of ever receiving his stolen item back. This is referred to as a state of yiush. May the penitent thief keep the item he stole and offer money instead? The Gemara refers to this as yiush kedi kani. Perhaps, he must still return the original item – yiush kedi lo kani. Rabba maintained that the repentant thief can offer monetary restitution. Rav Yosef maintained that the thief must still return the original item, despite the owner’s despair. There is still some lingering confusion as to Rava’s opinion, as he seemed to have made contradictory statements. (Perhaps, one of the contradictory statements was expressed by his talmid Rav Pappa.) Abaya, who was a star pupil of Rav Yosef, asked his rebbi a very strong question on his position. Rav Yosef, to his dismay, could not find an answer. Meanwhile, the current Rosh HaYeshiva passed away. It was agreed that certainly either Rabba or Rav Yosef would be appointed to this illustrious position. However, it was unclear who should be chosen. Rav Yosef’s breadth of encyclopedic Torah knowledge surpassed Rabba’s. Yet, Rabba’s sheer genius was incomparable.
The rabbis ruled that since in those days,the majority of Torah remained oral, the Rosh HaYeshiva should be the one with the unparalleled encyclopedic knowledge. Rav Yosef nevertheless refused the appointment. Rabba became the Rosh HaYeshiva. During Rabba’s tenure, Rav Yosef refused any display of honor, so as not to diminish the respect due to the reigning Rosh HaYeshiva. Twenty-two years later, Rabba passed away and Rav Yosef became Rosh HaYeshiva. He served for two and half years until his passing. At that point, Abaya became Rosh HaYeshiva to be eventually followed by Rava. The Gemara notes that when Rav Yosef became Rosh HaYeshiva he was finally able to answer that sharp question that Abaya asked on his position regarding the situation where the victim of the theft despaired. What happened that all of a sudden he was able to come up with an answer? Those not aware that Rav Yosef was the preferred candidate twenty-two years ago might opine that now that Rabba passed away, they must accept the second best. Of course, he might still be the greatest living sage, but to some extent, his honor could have been unduly slighted. Therefore, Hashem gave him the answer so that it would bolster his prestige.
The Gemara notes that even Rabba was unable to come up with Rav Yosef’s brilliant answer. When Rav Yosef solved the 22-year-old mystery, he would get the reputation as an unparalleled sage that he rightly deserved (see Rashi in Kesuvos). The Chofetz Chaim was quoted as offering a different explanation. Rav Yosef could have been Rosh HaYeshiva first if he wanted to. However, he did not run after the honor. He graciously allowed Rabba to take his place. Moreover, he shied away from any honor for twenty-two years to ensure that Rabba received the honor that he deserved. Therefore, after Rabba’s passing, Hashem gave Rav Yosef as a reward the same trait that Rabba had possessed. Rav Yosef now became a sheer genius to use in conjunction with his encyclopedic Torah knowledge. With that great gift, he was able to answer the question that was simmering for 22 years. One has to be inspired by the fortitude of Rav Yosef. He staked out a position on a halachic matter that was hard to defend. Abaya’s strong question had been lingering for 22 years. Yet, Rav Yosef was strong in his conviction. He did not retract his psak or waver. He maintained his ruling hoping that one day he would discover an answer. Rav Yosef’s own ruling was that the victim’s despair is not enough of a force to allow one to keep the stolen object. Rav Yosef lived and breathed this very ruling. He did not despair! He did not let the despair of not finding an answer sway him or overpower him. Rav Yosef held that despair can be surmounted. Twenty-two years later, Rav Yosef finally found the answer. Moreover, the halachic debate has now finally come to a conclusion. Rav Yosef’s resilience paid off. The halacha follows his ruling.
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow is a rebbe at Yeshiva Ateres Shimon in Far Rockaway. In addition, Rabbi Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead, NY. He can be contacted at ASebrow@ gmail.com.