Sometimes when you study Talmud, you find yourself laughing out-loud. OK. Maybe rarely, but it’s always surprising when it happens. Here is today’s laugh. Rabbi Avya the Elder asked Rabbi Huna a complicated question about the slaughtering of an animal on a festival. Are you laughing yet? Rabbi Huna did not want to answer the question so he used the oldest trick in the book. He told Rabbi Avya that a raven was flying by to distract him – “Look. A raven flies.” - hoping that when they looked up at the sky, his colleague would forget his question. Laugh here.
Did Rabbi Huna think his colleague was stupid? Rabbi Huna’s son witnessed this interaction and was deeply puzzled; after all, Rabbi Huna said that Rabbi Avya was a great man. If he was such a great man and a great scholar, why didn’t Rabbi Huna answer his question instead of resorting to a juvenile distraction? Rabbi Huna responded with a sense of despair: “What should I have done for him? Today I am like this [best described by the verse that states]: ‘Let me lean against stout trunks; let me crouch among apple trees’ (Song of Songs 2:5), and he asked me about something that requires reasoning.”
Rabbi Huna was a scholar of distinction who was deeply engaged in matters of the community. People were leaning on him. He was the stout trunk in Song of Songs. Everyone needed him for guidance and legal advice. He wanted, instead, to be like one crouching or hiding among apple trees, far from sight. He was so tired from answering questions that he did not have the mental state to tolerate another, even or perhaps especially, from someone learned who would require a thoughtful response.
Rabbi Huna did not lie. Rashi states that a raven really did pass by at that moment, perhaps startling the group study. Rabbi Huna leveraged this diversion because he either did not want to give Rabbi Avya an answer right away or because he could not think of one. The more honest approach would have simply been to say he had run out of mental steam. Some commentaries believe that Rabbi Huna was being dismissive of this scholar because he thought the question did not make sense. But this would not explain Rabbi Huna’s convoluted answer.
Being a public figure can be very hard at times, particularly if you are running low on energy or creativity; when all of your ideas are spent and you have very little room left for negotiating politics or engaging in difficult intellectual gymnastics, you may get to a point where you say “Enough.” It is hard to replace lost energy or to feel inspired when you are this burnt out. Maybe when Rabbi Huna saw the raven, he was trying to distract himself. The image of a bird free in flight for a stout and rooted tree trunk would have been an appealing relief.
Ravens live for a long time, often for decades. They mate for life and are very territorial in pairs. We know the raven from Edgar Allen Poe stories as a symbol of doom and a foreshadow of trouble on the horizon. In the ancient world, however, ravens were often revered because of their intelligence and ingenuity. Rabbi Huna could have been, in some way, suggesting that Rabbi Avya was like the raven. He was smart, swift and flying high while Rabbi Huna felt too weighed down and burdened to respond. This may even have been a play on words because Avya in Hebrew suggests a birdlike quality, referencing the air or sky.
Jackie Kennedy explained her role as first lady much as the raven functioned in this story: “I think the best thing I can do is to be a distraction. A husband lives and breathes his work all day long. If he comes home to more table thumping, how can the poor man ever relax?” She knew that a president’s work is rarely done and that home had to be an oasis that would distract her husband from the burdens of leadership. And a lovely distraction she was.
While we may not agree with Rabbi Huna’s trick, we can certainly appreciate where it comes from and what it was trying to mask. We appreciate his vulnerability and the confession of his inadequacy. And he teaches us something at the same time. Rather than take us far away from our goals, helpful distractions can provide small diversions that help us relax and re-focus.
Distractions don’t always have to be viewed negatively. They can provide us with a temporary mental space and pause to re-focus. Name one of your positive distractions. Be a raven and fly away with it, but don’t forget to come back.