June 6, 2024
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From the River to the Olive Tree: Bava Metzia Daf 100

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was an important nobleman in his country, for through him Hashem had granted victory to Aram. But Naaman, though a great warrior, was a leper, who spent his days suffering greatly from his physical ailments. Once, when the Arameans were out raiding, they carried off a young girl from the land of Israel, and she became an attendant to Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only your husband would visit the prophet in Samaria, he would cure him of his leprosy.”

Naaman went and told the king what the girl from the land of Israel had said, to which the king replied, “Go to the king of Israel, and I will send along a letter of introduction.” He set out, taking with him 10 talents of silver, 6,000 shekels of gold and 10 sets of clothing. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, wherein it was written, “Now, when this letter reaches you, know that I have sent my courtier Naaman to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy.” When the king of Israel read the letter, he rent his clothes and cried, “Am I God, to deal death or give life, that this fellow writes to me to cure a man of leprosy? Just see for yourselves that he is seeking a pretext against me!”

When the prophet Elisha heard that the king of Israel had rent his clothes, he sent a message, saying, “Why have you rent your clothes? Let the leprous foreigner come to me, and he will learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman came with his horses and chariots and halted at the door of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, “Go and bathe seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be pure.”

But Naaman became angry and walked away. “I thought,” he said, “the man of God would surely come out to greet me and utter a Divine incantation, immediately curing my ailment. Instead, he has the audacity to tell me to bathe! Are not the Amanah and Pharpar rivers of Damascus better than all the waters of Israel? I could bathe in them and be pure!” And he stalked off in a rage.

But his servants came forward and spoke to him. “Sir,” they said, “if the prophet told you to do something difficult, would you not do it? How much more when he has only said to you, ‘Bathe and be pure.’” So, he went down and immersed himself in the Jordan seven times, as the agent of God had bidden; and his skin became like that of a young child, and he was purified. Returning with his entire retinue to the prophet, he exclaimed, “Now I know that there is no God in the whole world other than in Israel!”

***

Today’s daf discusses a river that uprooted an olive grove from Reuven’s property and deposited it in Shimon’s field where it took root. To whom does the subsequent olive yield belong?

מַתְנִי׳ שָׁטַף נָהָר זֵיתָיו וּנְתָנָם לְתוֹךְ שְׂדֵה חֲבֵירוֹ זֶה אוֹמֵר זֵיתַי גִּדֵּלוּ וְזֶה אוֹמֵר אַרְצִי גִּדֵּלָה יַחְלוֹקוּ: גְּמָ׳ תָּנָא אָמַר הַלָּה זֵיתַיי אֲנִי נוֹטֵל אֵין שׁוֹמְעִין לוֹ מַאי טַעְמָא אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן מִשּׁוּם יִשּׁוּב אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל אָמַר רַבִּי יִרְמְיָה כְּגוֹן דָּא צְרִיכָא רַבָּה

Mishna: “If a river swept away his olive grove and deposited them in the field of his friend, and one fellow says,‘My olive grove yielded (the olives and so they belong to me),’ while the other fellow says,‘My land yielded,” they divide (the olive yield between them). Gemara:” If the owner said, ‘I am uprooting and taking my grove back,’ we pay him no heed. Why? Rabbi Yochanan said: Due to the mitzvah of settling the Land of Israel (we do not uproot Jewish olive groves). Rabbi Yeremiah said: Such a declaration could only be issued by an outstanding personage.”

***

What’s so outstanding about Rabbi Yochanan’s position? Throughout the Talmud, he offers many significant rulings, as do many other Sages. What makes this statement special?

The medieval and early modern commentators are generally silent on the meaning of Rabbi Yeremiah’s accolade because it would have sounded rather enigmatic to their ears. However, in our generation, we can appreciate how Rabbi Yochanan’s prescience was almost too accurate to believe it was written a millennium and a half ago.

Let’s examine the circumstances. There’s a storm so powerful that the river overflows its banks. The force of the flowing water is so great that it uproots some trees and washes them downstream, depositing them in another field. There they take root and a few months later they produce fruit. As the farmer is picking the fruit, he gets a knock on the door from another farmer living a few miles upstream. “Excuse me, sir, but that’s my fruit you’re harvesting.” How does the visitor even know where his trees landed? How can he prove they’re his? And is anyone really going to go to all that investigative hassle to find his missing trees?

To understand the deeper meaning behind the Gemara’s unusual scenario and Rabbi Yochanan’s prophetic declaration, we need to turn to contemporary politics of Israel. Attackers of the Jewish state have taken to chanting, “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free,” a reference to the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Have you ever wondered why they chose those geographical markers? They could just as easily have said, “From the (Judean) Hills to the Sea!” Or better yet, why choose symbolism representing the span of the country from east to west? Why not employ a north-south geographical framework? It would conjure up imagery of a far greater landmass. What’s more, they seem to have forgotten that the Golan lies beyond the “River!” And just in case you’re concerned about the rhyming factor, the chant could easily be amended to, “From the (Golan) Heights to the (Red) Sea!”

What’s another symbol of the conflict? Olive groves. Whenever the Palestinians seek to present themselves as victims of “settler hostility,” they accuse Israelis of cutting down their olive groves. Now, to be honest, it makes little sense. Israel’s olive exports are nothing special. Globally, the country ranks in the average range. It has a much bigger global market share of grapefruit and orange exports—think, Jaffa oranges—ranking amongst the highest producers in the world! So, why all the fuss about olive groves?

Suddenly, the pieces of the puzzle are beginning to fall into place. Many of the cases in the Gemara are hypothetical situations that may or may not have ever occurred. If Rabbi Yochanan tells us about settling the Land of Israel in the context of a river, we shouldn’t picture just any old river. Israel is not America. It doesn’t have hundreds of thousands of rivers scattered across the country. It has a handful of small rivers, but only one major “River” that everyone is familiar with: the Jordan. So, when the river in the Gemara overflows and uproots the olive grove, we’re probably talking about the Jordan River. And we’re concerned about maintaining olive groves in Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria, otherwise known as the “West Bank” of the Jordan River!

What then is the symbolism of the (Jordan) River and the olive grove that make them so essential to the struggle for the Land of Israel? Ever since the episode of Elisha and Naaman, the River has come to represent a place of purification for Bible believers, Jew and non-Jew alike. Olive groves don’t just produce olives. They also produce olive oil. And in our tradition, olive oil is not only for drinking and cooking. It fueled the light of the menorah in the Holy Temple, and it was used to anoint priests and kings!

When they attack your rights to the river and the olive grove, they’re going after your dedication to goodness and excellence. The forces of evil don’t want you to be cleansed of the spiritual haze of this world. The forces of evil don’t want to see you anointed for greatness. They will do anything to keep you mediocre or worse. But you know that you have been blessed with moral clarity. You know that you are destined for excellence. And nothing can uproot you when You- Know-Who’s on your side.

You’re on Heaven’s team. That’s why it feels like you must deal with unceasing earthly opposition. May you remain forever rooted and growth-oriented in the face of all the storms!


Rabbi Dr. Daniel Friedman is the author of “The Transformative Daf” book series. He battles Christian antisemitism and teaches International Relations at Landers.

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