By Shayna Herszage, Managing Editor
Followers of the Daf Yomi cycle recently finished Masekhet (Tractate) Shabbat and began Masekhet Eruvin. At the end of Shabbat, the Talmud raises several anecdotes on the topic of astrology and unrealized or inaccurate astrological predictions.
One such excerpt, found in Shabbat 156b, can be paraphrased as follows:
Chaldean astrologers told the mother of Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak that her son would grow up to be a thief. In order to prevent this, she told her son to always cover his head so he would constantly have G-d in his thoughts, and to also pray. Despite not knowing why his mother would tell him this, Rav Nachman obeyed. One day, however, he was sitting and studying under a palm tree that did not belong to him. His head covering fell off, and he was overcome with the impulse to steal some of the dates from the tree — an impulse upon which he acted immediately.
In this story, we see an example of someone whose future was predestined, and — after years of trying to resist — he eventually succumbed to his thieving personality.
This anecdote is interesting because it does not, on the surface, appear to fit the context of its sugya (section). While its sugya is focused on addressing cases of disproven astrological forecasts, this particular case ends with Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak falling prey to his nature as foretold in the constellations. Is this not contradictory to the argument of the sugya?
While I was unable to find a source explaining this difficulty, I believe that it is meant to foster a better understanding of one’s limits and give credit where credit is due. Rav Nachman was, per the Chaldeans’ conjectures, destined to be a career thief. Such a prediction might cause someone to simply accept a life of crime — it could easily serve as a stumbling block in the path to becoming a scholar. But Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak spent his entire life fighting this aspect of his personality, allowing him to become one of the great sages. To expect Rav Nachman to completely overcome his very nature would seemingly be unrealistic. Yet Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak defied expectations by combating his inclination for as long as he could, and he deserves immense respect for having managed to do so.
Similarly, we should give ourselves and those around us the same respect as they work to become better people. It is far from easy to reform a part of oneself — as the saying goes, old habits die hard. When someone regresses in their journey, whatever journey that may be, it is hardly a failure. View it rather as a temporary setback. By working hard to resist temptation and improve character, people already accomplish more than they realize.
This is particularly relevant as we enter the Jewish month of Elul and approach the High Holidays. During this period, we are often given the impression that repentance and self-improvement are measured on all-or-nothing scales. However, it is important to realize that making a serious effort to improve oneself is in its own right a laudable act that demonstrates strength of character. Once we acknowledge that no one is perfect — including ourselves — and that becoming better people is a work in progress, we can support each other on our personal journeys and ultimately create a kinder and more accepting society.