1) FOCUS DURING PRAYER
QUESTION: The Gemara cites two verses which discuss the proper focus a person should have during prayer. The two verses, however, seem to contradict each other. One verse teaches that a person should direct his eyes and heart towards Yerushalayim and the Beis ha'Mikdash when he prays, because the Shechinah dwells there. Hash-m told Shlomo ha'Melech, "... My eyes and My heart shall be there forever" (Melachim I 9:3). Another verse teaches that a person should lift his heart heavenwards when he prays: "We shall lift our hearts with our hands to Hash-m in heaven" (Eichah 3:41).
Rebbi Yishmael b'Rebbi Yosi explains that both verses are correct. When one prays, he should direct his eyes downward, in the direction of the dwelling place of the Shechinah in Eretz Yisrael, and he should direct his heart upward towards heaven.
The Gemara here seems to contradict the Gemara in Berachos (30a). The Mishnah (28b) and Gemara (30a) there state clearly that when a person prays, he should "direct his heart" towards Eretz Yisrael (and not heavenward). Not only should his eyes be directed towards Eretz Yisrael, his heart should be as well. (MAHARSHA)
(a) The ARUCH LA'NER writes that RABEINU YONAH in Berachos (22b of the pages of the Rif) addresses this question. Rabeinu Yonah quotes the Gemara here in Yevamos and explains that when the Gemara says that one should direct his eyes downward and his heart upward, it means that he should visualize himself as though he is standing in Shamayim and has no desire whatsoever for the pleasures of this world. Once he achieves that focus, he is ready to pray to Hash-m, and then, while he is praying, he should visualize himself as though he is standing in the Beis ha'Mikdash, in this world. With that form of concentration he will merit that his Tefilah will be accepted.
The words of Rabeinu Yonah imply that a person should have two Kavanos. He first should direct his heart towards heaven and visualize himself as though he is in Shamayim and has no connection to the physical desires and pleasures of this world. Afterward, he should direct his heart towards the Beis ha'Mikdash. Accordingly, both the Gemara here and in Berachos are correct and do not contradict each other.
Rabeinu Yonah adds that focused concentration to remove all physical pleasures from one's consciousness is the intent of the Mishnah in Berachos when it says that the Chasidim ha'Rishonim would prepare for one hour to "focus their hearts to Hash-m" before they stood up to pray. They would focus their hearts so that the only desire they had was to fulfill the will of Hash-m, with absolutely no desire for the pleasures of this world.
An allusion to this form of concentration may be found in the verse cited by the Gemara here. The verse says that Hash-m's "eyes and heart shall be there forever" (Melachim I 9:3). The fact that Hash-m focuses His eyes and heart towards the Beis ha'Mikdash, as it were, is a sign that man, too, should focus his eyes and heart towards the Beis ha'Mikdash. Not only should one's eyes be directed towards the Beis ha'Mikdash, but his heart as well. The other verse says that "we shall lift our hearts with our hands to Hash-m in heaven." This verse emphasizes directing the heart heavenward. Together, the verses teach that the eyes should be directed towards the dwelling place of the Shechinah in this world (the Beis ha'Mikdash), while the heart should be directed towards both -- first, towards Shamayim, so that one remove any desire for worldly pleasures from his heart, and second, towards the Beis ha'Mikdash and the Kodesh ha'Kodashim.
2) AGADAH: AVDAN'S PUNISHMENT
QUESTION: The Gemara relates that because Avdan belittled Rebbi Yishmael b'Rebbi Yosi and then walked slowly through the ranks of students seated before Rebbi, he suffered three severe punishments. He became plagued with Tzara'as, his sons drowned at sea, and his daughters-in-law left their husbands through Mi'un.
In what way were those three punishments fitting penalties for Avdan's transgression?
(a) RASHI (DH Nitztare'a) explains that Avdan's unjust criticism of Rebbi Yishmael b'Rebbi Yosi constituted the sin of Lashon ha'Ra, for which one is punished with Tzara'as (Erchin 16b).
Rashi explains only why Avdan was punished with Tzara'as. Why was he punished with the death of his sons and the Mi'un of his daughters-in-law?
(b) The MAHARSHA explains that the death of his sons and the Mi'un of his daughters-in-law were two parts of a single punishment. Two of his sons died childless, leaving their wives bound to perform Yibum with the surviving sons. Their wives, however, were minors who performed Mi'un and thereby severed the bond of marriage with their husbands, and thus the surviving sons were not able to "build the family" of their deceased brothers. This was an appropriate punishment for Avdan's offense, for he criticized Rebbi Yishmael during a case in which a Yevamah Ketanah (who did not perform Mi'un) came before the court of Rebbi to perform Chalitzah.
This answer is not clear. The Gemara does not mention that the Yevamah who came before the court of Rebbi was married only mid'Rabanan and could perform Mi'un. Moreover, even if Avdan's daughters-in-law had not performed Mi'un, they would not have been bona fide Yevamos since their Kidushin was only mid'Rabanan. Also, even when they did Mi'un, their act retroactively removed any bond of marriage, and thus there never was a house to build in the first place.
A further difficulty is that according to the Maharsha the dead sons must have been adults (since they married their wives with Kidushei Mi'un, which a minor boy cannot do). Although under certain circumstances young children may be punished for the sins of their parents (see Shabbos 32b), there is no source that adult children should be punished for the sins of their parents.
(b) The AHAVAS EISAN in the Ein Yakov explains the Gemara based on the verse in Koheles (5:5): "Do not let your mouth bring sin upon your flesh (i.e. your children), and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake; why should the Almighty be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands?" The Gemara in Shabbos (32b) expounds this verse and explains that certain sins committed with the mouth can cause the death of one's minor children. The Midrash (Devarim Rabah 6, Tanchuma Metzora 1) explains that the sin to which the verse refers is Lashon ha'Ra. Accordingly, it was appropriate that Avdan's children died due to his sin of Lashon ha'Ra.
The CHAFETZ CHAIM (Shemiras ha'Lashon, Sha'ar ha'Tevunah, chapter 17) expounds on this approach. He explains that Avdan's transgression constituted Ona'as Devarim, a verbal insult. He demeaned Rebbi Yishmael b'Rebbi Yosi for stepping over the heads of the students, and he further acted improperly when he questioned whether Rebbi Yishmael was fit to learn Torah from Rebbi. Although his speech constituted Ona'as Devarim, had his motivation been pure and for the sake of heaven he would not have been subject to punishment. In order to determine the sincerity of Avdan's words, Hash-m tested him. Hash-m caused a Yevamah Ketanah to come before them at that moment, necessitating analysis of the law. When Avdan stepped over the heads of the students on his way back to the study hall, he showed that his words of rebuke to Rebbi Yishmael were not the result of zealousness but merely words of Lashon ha'Ra. He therefore was punished with Tzara'as for speaking Lashon ha'Ra, and his sons died specifically through drowning, because drowning is a from of asphyxiation which resembles the disease of Askarah (Kesuvos 30b), one of the punishments for speaking Lashon ha'Ra (Shabbos 33a). His assertion that Rebbi Yishmael was unfit to learn Torah from Rebbi was also proven to be unfounded, as ultimately Rebbi needed to rely on the teaching which Rebbi Yishmael related in the name of his father, Rebbi Yosi.
The Chafetz Chaim explains that this principle applies to any similar case in which a person attempts to rebuke or punish his fellow man without pure intentions. If a person harmed another in any way, even in a way in which he was allowed to do so, he must remember that if he ever does the same action for which he punished his fellow man, he will be considered to have harmed an innocent person and he will be punished accordingly. Accordingly, one who speaks Lashon ha'Ra about another person or causes him any form of anguish or pain should be filled with trembling, because if he delves into his deeds he may find that he transgressed in the same manner as the person whom he disgraced. Even if he finds no such misdeed in his past, he should be aware that -- after he has spoken Lashon ha'Ra -- if in the future he ever transgresses in a similar manner as the person whom he disgraced, his rebuke will be considered a sin retroactively. (See Insights to Pesachim 87:1.)
(c) The Mi'un of Avdan's daughters-in-law was a fitting punishment for his offense for the following reason. Avdan criticized Rebbi Yishmael, and he walked slowly through the ranks of students, while Rebbi was deliberating in a case of a Yevamah Ketanah. Avdan thought that such a Yevamah could not perform Chalitzah. Avdan was on his way to check whether the Yevamah was an adult (and not a minor) when Rebbi Yishmael corrected Rebbi in the matter and proved to him that a Ketanah may perform Chalitzah. Avdan's punishment -- his daughters-in-law performed Mi'un, an act performed only by a Ketanah -- was related to his criticism of Rebbi Yishmael in the case of a Yevamah Ketanah. Hash-m punished Avdan by causing him to suffer as a result of an act which only a Ketanah may do. (M. Kornfeld)