From Destruction to a Perspective of Redemption
המשגיח, הרב שרון יוסט
The following story is brought down in Masechet Ketubot (66b):
The Rabbis recounted: Once Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai rode out of Yerushalayim on his mule, and his students walked after him. He saw a young woman picking up grains of barley from between the dung of the beasts of the Arabs. When she saw him, she wrapped in her hair (meaning either that she covered her hair or covered her face with her hair) and stood before him and said: Rabbi, feed me! He asked her: My daughter, who are you? She answered: I am the daughter of Nakdimon Ben Gurion (who was one of the wealthiest men in Jerusalem before the destruction of the second Temple). He asked: My daughter, where did all your family's money go? She said: Rabbi, isn't there a saying in Jerusalem: "The salt of money is deduction – חסר (and there is a version that says kindness - חסד." (Both versions mean that that deducting money for tzedaka preserves it, just like salt is used to preserve food. Rashi explains that Nakdimon's family didn't give tzedaka as befitted them, so their fortune decreased and disappeared.) He asked: And what happened to the fortune of your father-in law's family? She said: One caused the other to be lost (meaning my family's money caused the loss of my in-laws' money because they became interconnected). She continued: Rabbi, do you remember when you signed my Ketubah? Rabbi Yochanan turned to his students and said: I remember that I signed this young lady's Ketubah and I read that (they wrote her) her a million gold dinars from her father's house, besides the sum her father-in-law wrote her.
Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai wept and said: Blessed are you, Israel! אשריכם ישראל)) When they do what G-d's will, no nation or tongue have power over them. But when they do not do G-d's will, they are delivered into the hands of a lowly nation. And not only to a lowly nation, but even to the beasts of a lowly nation.
And the question of the commentators is well known: Granted, it is appropriate to say "Blessed are you Israel" when they do G-d's will. But how can this be said when they are not doing His will?
We see something similar in Masechet Brachot (7b): "A song of David, when he fled from his son Avshalom." (Tehillim 3:1) The immediate question is: A song of David?! A lamentation of David would be more appropriate! Rabbi Shimon Ben Avishalom said: This is comparable to a man who was issued a warrant demanding the payment of a debt (which he cannot afford). Before he paid it he was distressed, and after he paid it he was cheerful. So it was with David: When G-d said "I will bring affliction upon you from your house" – he was distressed, and said: Perhaps this (evil) will be perpetrated by a slave or a mamzer (who typically is fierce), who has no compassion for me. When he saw that it was Avshalom he rejoiced, and therefore the psalm begins with "A song."
Here too the words of the Talmud are perplexing: What reason did David have to rejoice when he saw that it was his son who was rebelling against him? Ultimately Avshalom wanted to kill him!
The book of Shmuel says: (II Shmuel 17): "And Achitofel said to Avshalom: Let me select twelve thousand men and I will rise and pursue after David tonight. And I will come upon him and he will be exhausted and weak-handed, and I will startle him and all the men who are with him will flee, and I will smite the king alone. And I will bring all the men back to you, when all will return, the man whom you request, and peace will be unto all the people. And Avshalom and all the elders of Israel considered this (plan) correct."
Achitofel's plot could have worked, but Avshalom hesitated (presumably out of compassion for his father) and as a result David survived and overcame the rebellion.
Rabbi Yonatan Eibeschitz says: This is similar to a son whose father punishes him, and every time the son turns his head and sees that it is his father who is striking him and not a stranger, this calms him deep inside. For his father punishes him in order to educate him and to put him on the proper path, and each and every blow comes from great love, even if at the present this love is concealed. But if the son's transgression was very severe, then the father may send someone else to punish him, and this is harsher sevenfold because the one delivering the blows has no mercy on the son, and further, this testifies to the distancing of the father from his son.
When ייסורים (troubles) come in a "natural" way, for example monetary loss or illness, people tend to attribute them to some all kinds of reasons. This is a great mistake, since with this kind of thinking, with our own hands we distance G-d from us - figuratively speaking "leaving Him out of the equation."
We have to accustom ourselves to always look upwards. Regarding the brass serpent which Moshe was commanded to make and put at the head of a pole, so that whoever was bitten by a poisonous snake could look upon it and be cured, the Mishna asks rhetorically: "Is it the serpent which kills, and is it the serpent which saves lives?" The Mishna continues: "But rather, when Israel looked upward and devoted their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they were cured." (Mishna Rosh HaShana 3:8)
King David feared that if it turned out that a slave or a mamzer was the one rebelling against him, this would be a sign that G-d had distanced Himself from him and abandoned him to a natural, this-worldly course of events. But when he found out that his son Avshalom was the one who had risen and rebelled against him, a grain of hope remained in spite of the great difficulty and danger. A situation in which a son rises in rebellion against his father and plots to kill him is illogical and unnatural, and this itself proves that the Creator of the world, Himself in His splendor, is now running the show.
So it is with the story of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai. The stupendous fallמאיגרא רמה לבירא עמיקתא (from a high roof to a deep well) of this young lady, who was one of the richest women in Israel and the daughter of a man who was famous not only for his fabulous wealth but also because of a great miracle in which "the sun shone for him" (see Taanit 19b – 20a) who is now reduced to picking up barley from among the dung of the beasts of Arabs - isn't this beyond belief? This is a clear proof that G-d is here with us, and even when He severely afflicts us, the situation is still that of a father striking his son.
"These rely on their chariots and those rely on their horses, but we will proclaim the name of the Lord our G-d." (Tehillim 20:8) The nations of the world boast of their chariots and horses, but we are not like them: it is G-d's name which is called upon us, and all the nations of the world will fear Him, and it is with His strength that we will act and succeed. "Through the Lord we will do mightily, He will crush our enemies." (Tehillim 60:14)
When we are within the walls of the Beit Midrash, it is relatively easy to sense feelings of Torah and holiness and closeness to HaShem. But we have to remember and internalize that also when we take a break for a period of rest and refreshment over Bein HaZmanim, we must accustom ourselves to a spiritual, authentic outlook on each and every aspect of life, and to endeavor to see and believe that G-d is present and that He oversees, everywhere and in every situation.
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