(תהילים לב) “עַל זֹאת יִתְפַּלֵּל כָּל חָסִיד אֵלֶיךָ לְעֵת מְצֹא…” אמר ר’ חנינא, “‘לעת מצא’ זו אשה…” ר’ נתן אומר, “‘לעת מצא’ זו תורה…” רב נחמן בר יצחק אמר, “‘לעת מצא’ זו מיתה…” … ר’ יוחנן אמר, “‘לעת מצא’ זו קבורה”… מר זוטרא אמר, “‘לעת מצא’ זה בית הכסא.” אמרי במערבא, “הא דמר זוטרא עדיפא מכלהו.”
“For this every pious person will prays to you for the time when it can be found.” (Tehillim 32:6)
R’ Chanina sound, “‘A time when it can be found’ — this is a woman…” [i.e. it is appropriate to pray when seeking a wife; source texts and further discussion, elided.]”
R’ Nasan said, “‘A time when it could be found” — this is Torah…”
Rav Nachman bar Yitzchaq said, “‘A time when it could be found’ — this is death…”
R’ Yochanan said, “‘A time when it could be found’ — this is burial…”
Mar Zutera said, “‘A time when it could be found’ — this is the bathroom.” In the west [Israel] they say, “That of Mar Zutera is better than all of them.”
– Berakhos 8a
The odd ending to this gemara reminded me of a quote from the Vilna Gaon in Even Sheleimah 1:11 (the basis of my published essay “Watering our Weeds” — MS Word, PDF):
The topic of Torah to the soul: A comparison to rain for the ground; it causes what was planted there to grow, a cure or a poison. Similarly Torah, causes what is in his heart to grow. If what is in his heart is good, his yir’ah will grow; if what’s in his heart is a “root sprouting poison weed and wormwood” then the bitterness that’s in his head will grow.
As they wrote “the righteous will walk in it, and sinners will stumble in it” [Hoshea 14:10, as explained by Chazal], and as they wrote “To those on the right the medicine of life is in it, and to those on the left, the poison of death.” [Shabbos 88b]
Therefore one must cleanse one’s heart every day before study and after it of impure attitudes and middos with a fear of sin and good deeds.
This [process] is euphemistically called “going to the bathroom”. They were was about this they hinted when they said “Going to the bathroom is greater than all of it.” (Berakhos 8a) And when they said “Whomever spends a long time in the bathroom, it is lofty.” (Ibid 55a) Also when they said, “Get up early and go, in the evening go” (Ibid 62a) they intend to say that in his youth and in his old age he shouldn’t distance himself a great distance from his Creator so that he couldn’t be helped.
One must inspect which evil middah is strong within him, and after that clean it out. Not like those men of desire who wallow in what they want, and the desire grows greater. It requires a lot of slyness, to be “sly in yir’ah” (Abayei, Ibid 17a) in opposition to the “snake was sly”.
One who is lazy in weeding out an evil middah, isn’t helped by all the legal fences and protections that he does. For any disease which isn’t cured from within…Even the fence of the Torah which protects and saves will be useless because of his laziness. (c.f. Rava, Sotah 21a; Bei’ur haGra Mishlei 24:31, 25:5)
According to the Vilna Gaon, in the idiom of rabbinic metaphor, the concept of “bathroom” represents working on one’s middos. If that idea applies here, then Mar Zutera’s statement and the Israeli amora’im‘s preference for it is far less startling. As that chapter in Even Sheleimah is titled,
יבאר כל דרבי שבירות המדות הרעות בחרן כלל שהוא שורש בל עבוחת ה׳ יתברך:
This Will Explain all the Ways of Breaking the Evil Middos in General, which is the Root of all Service of Hashem Yisbarakh
Our primary goal in life is to refine our middos. But we cannot guarantee our own success; we require Divine Aid. Finding the right spouse or the proper end to our lives — the things R’ Chanina, R’ Nasan, R’ Nachman bar Yitzchaq and R’ Yochanan find the most appropriate times for prayer — all depend on how we succeed at eliminating the dross of our souls — Mar Zutra’s interpretation. In that context, it is understandable why “In the west they say, ‘That of Mar Zutera is better than all of them.'”