Shiur 19b: A Change of Environment and a Change of Heart

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur 19b: A Change of Environment and a Change of Heart


By Rav Yitzchak Blau


Rabbi Mani was frequently found before Rabbi Yitzchak ben Elyashiv.  Once, Rabbi Mani said to him: "The rich members of my father-in-law's household harass me."

Rabbi Yitzchak ben Elyashiv said: "Let them become poor," and they became poor.

After a while, Rabbi Mani came back and said: "They now press me to support them."

Rabbi Yitzchak ben Elyashiv said: "Let them become rich again," and they became rich again.

Rabbi Mani said: "The people of my household are not (i.e., my wife is not) satisfactory to me."

Rabbi Yitzchak ben Elyashiv said: "What is her name?"

Rabbi Mani answered: "Channa."

Rabbi Yitzchak decreed: "Let Channa become beautiful," and she became beautiful.

Rabbi Mani returned and said: "She has become overbearing to me."

Rabbi Yitzchak ben Elyashiv said: "Let Channa revert to her plainness," and she reverted to her plainness."

There were two students before Rabbi Yitzchak ben Elyashiv.  They said to him: "Let the master ask for mercy for us that we become very wise."

He said to them: "It was with me (the power to affect things easily in prayer), but I sent it away."

(Ta'anit 23b)


This story includes several different ideas. Firstly, it says something about knowing for what to ask.  We need to pray for divine help in the truly important matters, rather than becoming caught up in who has money or who has the best-looking spouse.  The specific items included by Chazal in the request section of the Amida might help educate us in this regard.  


            Secondly, it points out that we sometimes desire things that are very much a mixed blessing. The petty jealousies and family squabbles that often come together with having more wealth than one's friends and relatives should make us question our aspirations for great riches. We can certainly reject poverty as a religious ideal per se and still understand the pitfalls of wealth.


            Yet a third level of this story's meaning may be even more significant.  We often think that we can make changes in our lives by shifting the circumstances around us; if our surrounding environment were only different, we think, things would be much better.  This story teaches that an authentic approach to improvement demands looking within more than without.  It turns out that Rabbi Mani's original social and domestic problems were not truly a function of either economics or physical appearance; therefore, only a genuine attempt to deal with the relationships in question could have helped.  


            Modern man tends to think of improving society via changes in the political structure.  However, the success of any political structure truly depends on the nature of the human beings who reside within it.  As Andre Gide wrote in his critique of Communism, "Man cannot be reformed from the outside - a change of heart is necessary."


            In the final episode, the two students do ask for something more worthwhile than riches or physical beauty, but they are still rebuffed.  This brings us to a final layer of meaning.  Even the things most worth asking for, or perhaps we should say especially the things worth asking for, cannot be achieved with a mystical utterance.  Rabbi Yitzchak tells his students that he has sent the power away (my explanation follows the Maharsha rather than Rashi) because he wanted them to understand that the route to becoming a talmid chakham runs through long hours of work in the study hall.  Authentic achievement requires effort and intelligence, not magic tricks.