The Talmud: Selections, by H. Polano, , at sacred-texts.com
"All that God made was very good."
Rabbi Simon, the son of Eleazer, uses the words "very good" in reference to sleep. "Man sleeps," says he, "and in a few hours he gains renewed strength." Rabbi Samuel, son of Nachman, said, "The incentive leading man towards women is 'very good,' for thereby households are organised and families are formed." Rabbi Hammuna was of the opinion that no more forcible meaning could be given to the words "very good" than in applying them to the ills of life, which, said he, "more than doctrines and reasonings keep men temperate and dependent on a Higher Power." Rabbi Simon, the son of Abba, applied the words "very good" to retaliation; and Rabbi Simon, the son of Lakish, to political government; but the teaching of Rabbi Meir was, that the death of man is "very good."
Judaism aims not to separate, but to unite mankind,
and this was one of the great principles of Rabbi Meir's life.
Concerning the passage, "Man shall observe the law and live in it," he said, "Holy Writ says not Israelites, not Levites, not priests, but men; therefore the Gentile who observes the law stands on a level with the High Priest."
"Walk before every man in modesty and humility," he said further. "Not only before your co-religionists, but before every man."
Rabbi Meir was a great allegorist; it is said that he knew three hundred allegories relating to the fox alone. Of these hut three fragments remain to us.
"A fox said to a bear, 'Come, let us go into this kitchen; they are making preparations for the Sabbath, and we shall he able to find food.' The bear followed the fox, but being bulky he was captured and punished. Angry thereat he designed to tear the fox to pieces, under the pretence that the forefathers of the fox had once stolen his food; wherein occurs the first saying, 'The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.'
"' Nay,' said the fox, 'come with me, my good friend; let us not quarrel; I will lead thee to another place where we shall surely find food.' The fox then led the bear to a fountain, where two buckets were fastened together by a rope, like balances. It was night, and the fox pointed to the moon reflected in the water, saying, 'Here is a fine cheese; let us descend and partake of it with an appetite.' The fox entered his pail first, but being too light to balance the weight of the bear he took with him a stone. As soon as the bear had gotten into the other pail, however, the fox threw this stone away, and consequently he rose, while the bear descended to the bottom."
Here he applies his second saying, "The righteous is
delivered out of trouble, and the wicked cometh in his stead." Each man must suffer for his own sins, and for his own guilt alone. He who follows the luminary of the night, sensuality, must perish, while the righteous one, though carrying a stone (sin), will throw it away betimes, and be delivered from death.
The libertine Elishah, the son of Abuyah, generally called Acher, a most learned man, was one of Rabbi Meir's teachers, and they frequently conversed on Biblical passages.
The people were not pleased that Rabbi Meir should so associate, and they called him therefore Acherim, a word composed of the letters of Meir and Acher. But Rabbi Meir referred them to the proverb, "Incline thy ears to listen to the words of the sages, but direct thy heart to what my thought is."
Rabbi Meir ate the date and threw away the seeds; he found a pomegranate, and partaking of the fruit, he rejected the rind. His generation did not comprehend him.
Acher upon one occasion said to Rabbi Meir, "Why is the law compared to gold and glass?"
"Because," replied Rabbi Meir, "it is as hard to acquire as gold is hard in substance, and forgotten with as much ease as glass is broken."
"No," returned the other, in the name of Rabbi Akiba, "the reason is this: when gold and glass are broken they may be melted and worked over into new shapes. So is it with the student of the law, though he may commit many faulty actions there is still hope and help for him."
Rabbi Meir always favoured benevolence, and a care of self as well as of others. "He only is truly rich," he asserted, "who enjoys his wealth."
The passage in Malachi 26: "Many he withheld from
iniquity," he interpreted as referring to Aaron, the first high priest, who was so respected that the mere mention of his name, or the thought of how he might regard a certain action were he present, prevented many from falling into sin.
A heathen once said to Rabbi Meir, "Does it seem credible that God, whose majesty you assert fills the universe, should have spoken from between the two staves in the ark of the sanctuary?"
In answer Rabbi Meir held up before the heathen a large and a small looking-glass, in each of which the inquirer beheld his image.
"Now," said the Rabbi, "in each mirror your body is reduced to correspond with the size of the glass,--should the same thing be impossible to God? The world is his large looking glass, the sanctuary his small one."
In regard to instruction, Rabbi Meir always said, "Teach your pupils concisely?" he also said, "Let your supplications be brief;" and his exhortation to parents was, "Teach thy son an honest handicraft."
His favourite maxim was, "Be resolved to know my ways; be attentive at the doors of the law, and guard the law in thy heart. Before thy eyes be the fear of me; protect thy mouth from sinning; cleanse and sanctify thyself from all guilt and iniquity, and God will be with thee."
From the sentence, "Be attentive at the doors of the law," Rabbi Meir declared that every scholar should have at least three teachers, and that the word "doors" possesses a peculiar idea or meaning. For instance, a person in passing the door of the house in which he passed his honeymoon, or the door of a hall of justice in which he has been convicted or acquitted, or the door of a house in which he has sinned, what different thoughts, feelings, and recollections will be awakened in him. With equal strength should the
circumstances under which he studied the law be impressed upon his mind. The Israelites are called the "children of God," and Rabbi Meir never ceased to present this filial relation in its true light, filling to the brim the goblet of family happiness, and displaying it to the eyes of the people. "Jeremiah calls us 'foolish children,'" said he; "in Deuteronomy we are called 'children lacking faith;' but under all circumstances we remain 'the children of God.'"
Rabbi Meir's wife was good and pious as her husband.
There dwelt in his neighbourhood some co-religionists who were followers of Greek customs, who annoyed the Rabbi very much. In his vexation he would have prayed to God to destroy them, but said Beruryah, his wife:
"Be mindful of the teachings of thy faith. Pray not that sinners may perish, but that the sin itself may disappear and no opportunity for its practice remain."
During the Rabbi's absence from home two of his sons died. Their mother, hiding her grief, awaited the father's return, and then said to him:
"My husband, some time since two jewels of inestimable value were placed with me for safe keeping. He who left them with me called for them to-day, and I delivered them into his hands?"
"That is right," said the Rabbi, approvingly. "We must always return cheerfully and faithfully all that is placed in our care."
Shortly after this the Rabbi asked for his sons, and the mother, taking him by the hand, led him gently to the chamber of death. Meir gazed upon his sons, and realising the truth, wept bitterly.
"Weep not, beloved husband," said his noble wife; "didst thou not say to me we must return cheerfully when ‘tis called for, all that has been placed in our care? God
gave us these jewels; He left them with us for a time, and we gloried in their possession; but now that He calls for His own, we should not repine."