Shiur #27: All for the Good

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau

 

TALMUDIC AGGADA

By Rav Yitzchak Blau

 

 

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This week's shiur is dedicated by Matt Tambor
in memory of Abraham Tambor z"l
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Shiur #27: All for the Good

 

 

R. Huna said in the name of Rav citing R. Meir, and so it was taught in the name of R. Akiva: A man should always accustom himself to say, “Whatever the Merciful One does is for the good,” [as exemplified in] the following incident.  R. Akiva was once going along the road and he came to a certain town and looked for lodgings, but was everywhere refused.  He said, “Whatever the Merciful One does is for the good," and he went and spent the night in the open field.  He had with him a rooster, a donkey, and a lamp.  A gust of wind came and blew out the lamp, a weasel came and ate the rooster, and a lion came and ate the donkey.  He said: “Whatever the Merciful One does is for the good.” The same night some brigands came and carried off the inhabitants of the town.  He said to them:  Did I not say to you, “Whatever the Merciful One does is all for the good.”  (Berakhot 60b)

 

Why did they call him Nahum Ish Gam Zu?  Because whatever would befall him, he would say: "This, too, is for the good." It once happened that the Jews wanted to send a gift to the Roman Emperor.  They said: “Who should go? Let Nachum Ish Gam Zu go because he is well practiced in miracles.” They sent him with a bag full of jewels and precious stones.  He left and spent the night at an inn.  The innkeeper stole the jewels and precious stones and filled the box with dirt.  When he arrived there, he opened the bag and saw that it was full of dirt.  The Emperor wanted to kill him.  He said: “The Jews are mocking me.”  He (Nachum Ish Gam Zu) said:  “This too is for the good.”   Eliyahu took on the appearance of a Roman and said to the Emperor: “Perhaps this is the dirt of Avraham their forefather. When Avraham threw the sand, it turned into swords, and when he threw stubble, it turned into arrows” ...There was one province that the Emperor was unable to subdue. He tested the sand, [used it,] and conquered the province.  He brought Nachum up to his treasury, filled the bag with jewels and precious stones, and sent him off with great honor.

 

When he came back to the same inn, they asked him: "'What did you bring with you that he rewarded you so richly?"  He said to them: “Whatever I took from here.”  The innkeeper knocked down the inn and he carried the dirt to the Emperor.  He said to him: “The dirt which was brought to you is from us.”  They tested the sand and found nothing [no miracles occurred].   They put the innkeeper to death.  (Ta’anit 21a)

 

In the first story, the noise of the animals and the light of the lamp would have alerted the thieves to R. Akiva’s presence. Similarly, had he found a host in the town, he would have been carried away with the rest of the inhabitants.  Thus, his apparent cycle of misfortune actually preserved his freedom. 

 

R. Kook views the three items stolen from R. Akiva as representing three kinds of evil that befall humanity.  People suffer due to human choices, whether their own or others’, due to the animal kingdom, and due to inanimate matter.  First, human society refused to grant R. Akiva lodgings. The loss of a donkey and a rooster symbolizes the evils resulting from animals.  According to R. Kook, the donkey stands for the material world, and the rooster which woke R. Akiva for prayer and study reflects spiritual endeavors.  Finally, the lamp represents inanimate matter. R. Akiva teaches his students to react to all categories of suffering as part of the Divine plan, which is ultimately good. 

 

We may find these two stories overly optimistic and ripe for the kind of satire Voltaire unleashed against Leibniz in Candide.  Human life as we experience it includes severe hardships and does not always have happy endings.  Before we accuse the Gemara of a Pollyannaish worldview, let us recall two adjacent Talmudic texts.  Berakhot 61b tells us about the gruesome death of R. Akiva in which the Romans scrape away his flesh with iron combs.  Ta’anit 21a relates the intense suffering that Nachum Ish Gam Zu experienced.   Granted that both rabbis react to their pain with equanimity; but it can hardly be said that the Sages were unaware of life’s horrors.  In our current existence, the good guys do not always win.

 

Some commentators wonder about the different phrases.  R. Akiva says: “Whatever the Merciful One does is for the good,” whereas Nachum says: “This too is for the good.”  Do the two phrases differ in meaning?  Is there a reason why these two rabbinic giants adopted slightly different terminology?  Maharsha suggests that only R. Akiva’s phrase explicitly mentions God. Perhaps R. Akiva wanted to clarify that Divine providence is the source of our optimism.

 

R. Yaakov Yosef from Polnoye (Toldeot Yaakov Yosef, parashat Vayechi) rejects Maharsha’s approach by claiming that God’s involvement is implicit in Nachum’s statement as well.  What else other than belief in God would enable Nachum to declare: “This too is for the good”?  Instead, R. Yaakov Yosef draws a different distinction between the similar phrases. R. Akiva says that suffering now may have a good effect later.  This approach does not deny the difficulties of our current reality. Nachum, on the other hand, insists that reality at present is all good.    

 

The broader context of the passage in Berakhot supports this take on R. Akiva.  The gemara teaches that we make different blessings on good tidings and on bad tidings. We recite on the former “barukh ha-tov ve-hameitiv” (blessed [are You] who is good and causes good) and on the latter “barukh dayan ha-emet” (blessed [are You] who is the true judge). Would we experience everything that happens to us as immediately positive, then the distinction collapses and we should always recite the same blessing. We do not do so because we experience bad tidings as different from good tidings.  When troubles arise, we have faith in God’s ultimate justice, but we still confront profound difficulty in the present. Thus, we bless “the true judge” and not the One “who is good and bestows good.”

 

R. Yaakov Yosef makes an additional point that helps distinguish Nachum.  “Everything depends upon the recipient.  If one receives it in such a way that it should be for the good, it immediately becomes for the good.”  From the ongoing discussion, it seems R. Yaakov Yosef means that certain righteous people can transcend the limitations of the natural order and rely upon Divine providence.  Along these lines, Nachum Ish Gam Zu resembles R. Shimon Bar Yochai who survived in the cave (Shabbat 33b) and thought Jews could dispense with working to support themselves (Berakhot 35b).

 

Perhaps we can take R. Yaakov Yosef’s idea in a different direction.  Frequently, our responses to the vicissitudes of life generate their own reality. A negative response encourages a bad outcome, whereas a more positive response helps create a better ending.  This has nothing to do with Divine involvement or escaping the natural order, and everything to do with the immense significance of attitude.  Of course, it is easier to have a positive attitude about a rainy day than about a serious illness. Nonetheless, we see heroic people who somehow remain upbeat despite serious difficulties, and their very attitude changes the impact of their suffering. 

 

From this perspective, the two phrases teach distinct messages.  One instructs us to believe that things will eventually turn out for the good as a result of Divine providence. The other emphasizes the importance of attitude and how our response to what we experience influences the outcome of that experience.  While admittedly this latter idea is not the simple interpretation of Nachum Ish Gam Zu, it certainly seems true to life.