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And Nonetheless . . . It Happened

And Nonetheless . . . It Happened


The following story is related in the Talmud (Bava Kama 50a):

Rabbi Nechunya chofer sichin, "the Well Digger," was a sage with a very unique occupation. During the festivals, when hordes of Jews from all over would arrive in Jerusalem for their pilgrimage to the Holy Temple, he concerned himself with their physical needs. Such crowds automatically meant that great supplies of food and drink were required, and Rabbi Nechunya – on a volunteer basis – dug numerous wells and pits, so that the water supply should be in abundance.

Once, a terrible tragedy took place: the daughter of Rabbi Nechunya fell into a pit. The news spread quickly, throwing everyone into despair—the chance of her being quickly rescued was minimal, and one couldn't survive in the bottom of a well for more than three hours. Filled with concern, everyone turned to G‑d in prayer, beseeching Him to have mercy on the daughter of this noble sage.

But when a third hour passed, their faith in the tzaddik's words once again waveredAnd, as Jews will always do in times of great need, they ran to the tzaddik, to the Rebbe, who at that time was Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa. At first he calmly reassured them that everything would be fine, there was nothing to worry about. Trusting the promise of the tzaddik, they were calmed.

A second hour passed, and the deadline for her rescue was ominously approaching, with no salvation in sight. The earlier calm evaporated, and they again ran to Rabbi Chanina. But Rabbi Chanina maintained his earlier position, there is no cause for concern. But when a third hour passed, and there was no longer any chance of finding the girl alive, their faith in the tzaddik's words once again wavered. Again they ran to him in desperation. "Don't worry," he told them, "she has already emerged from the pit."

Sure enough, the news quickly spread that the girl had miraculously emerged. And it was indeed a miraculous recovery; the girl related that she had been led out by an old man leading a ram!

The Jews ran back to Rabbi Chanina. "Rebbe," they excitedly exclaimed, "you are a prophet!" But Rabbi Chanina adamantly denied this. "I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet. I merely made a simple calculation: it cannot be that the thing which this tzaddik [Rabbi Nechunya] toils in [i.e., the digging of wells] should be the cause of suffering amongst his own children. Therefore I knew with absolute certainty that she would be saved. When three hours had passed, and it was no longer possible for her to survive in the pit, I was certain that she had already emerged."

Despite all of this, the Talmud mentions, the son of Rabbi Nechunya ended up dying of thirst.

The question is obvious; following Rabbi Chanina's calculation, how is it possible that the boy died of thirst, a horrible death, when his father was single-mindedly preoccupied with providing drink for the visiting Jews?! The question bothers many of the Talmudic commentators, who offer various answers. I, however, would like to humbly suggest that there is indeed no answer. That is exactly what the Talmud is saying: af al pi ken—nonetheless, even though it doesn't add up, his son died.

What's going on? How can that be? How is that possible? What happened to Rabbi Chanina's reasoning?Rabbi Chanina made a correct calculation, it is impossible for the child of a tzaddik to suffer in the area in which his/her father toils for others. This reasoning was so conclusive, that based on it he was able to state with absolute certainty that the girl would be unharmed. And yet the son of the same tzaddik died of thirst. What's going on? How can that be? How is that possible? What happened to Rabbi Chanina's reasoning?

The answer is: we don't know! We don't know the answer. It doesn't fit with the earlier story, it doesn't fit with the flawless reasoning of Rabbi Chanina. It can't be! It's impossible! The Talmud says it can't be. Rabbi Chanina says it can't be. Impossible!

But . . . af al pi ken . . . nonetheless . . . the son died. It happened. The questions are all there, but that's how it is. We get another lesson in the limitation of our intellect. We have calculations, logical ones, Torah-based ones, that we are certain about and we have a license to be. We know certain things can't happen.

You're right, says the Talmud. But . . . af al pi ken . . . nonetheless . . . it happened. We cry out in unmanageable pain, in frustration, in anger, and in shocked disbelief. But then we bow our heads in humility, and we accept. We move forward. Because one of the basic foundations of our religion is the conviction that G‑d is infinite, and it would be arrogant and foolish for us to even dream of understanding Him. And from time to time things continue to happen that don't make sense in our book, that don't even seem to make sense in His book, and . . . nonetheless . . . they happen. And we can only turn our tearful eyes heavenwards, and ask: "It happened, we accepted; isn't it time to let us understand? Isn't it time for the era when, as Isaiah says, we will 'thank You for having being wrathful with us'?!"

From time to time things continue to happen that don't make sense even in His book, and . . . nonetheless . . . they happenWhen the Jews were celebrating the inauguration of the Tabernacle, the climax of all the events since the Exodus, G‑d suddenly killed two of the greatest Jews. The sons of Aaron the High Priest, the most beloved Jew who dedicated his life to promoting peace amongst all his fellow men. The nephews of Moses, the tireless leader. The Jews' greatest joy was instantly transformed into the deepest mourning. Why? It didn't make sense. Not the event and not the timing.

And the Torah teaches us that indeed there was no rhyme or reason, no rationale at all. "And Aaron was silent." The stricken father bowed his head in humility and accepted. Although our Sages teach us that this was a tremendous accomplishment for Aaron, for which he was amply rewarded, the Rebbe has clearly demanded this exact reaction from all of us.

On Rosh Chodesh Kislev, one of the happiest days on the chassidic calendar, the day when in 1977, after suffering a massive heart attack just a few weeks earlier, the Rebbe was finally well enough to return to his home—to be flung into such absolute mourning is unfair, unfathomable, unacceptable and intolerable. Once again G‑d took two such holy people in the midst of what should have been our deepest joy.

The terrorists, may their names be blotted out, shot bullets into the Holy Ark, damaging the Torah Scroll. When it was opened, it was discovered that the bullet had penetrated just below the words, in Leviticus, "After the death of the two sons of Aaron." And once again, all that's left for us is to "be silent."

"I say to those of you dwelling on high: Despite all your best efforts I will remain a steadfast Jew!"During the Spanish Expulsion in 1492, it is told that there was an old Chacham who, together with his fellow Jews, was fleeing with his family. In the desert, his group was attacked by Arabs. His son-in-law was stabbed to death, and then his daughter was murdered in front of his eyes. He grabbed his infant grandson, all that was left of his family – his wife had passed away earlier – and, half-crazed from grief, fled alone into the desert. But the relentless desert sun got the better of him, and he fainted. When he came to, he saw to his shock that his grandson was no longer alive; in the meantime he had died from thirst and the elements. Numb with grief, he dug a grave for his grandson. Then he turned his eyes heavenward and cried: "It is clear that there are forces above that are determined at all costs to alienate me from my G‑d. I say to those of you dwelling on high: Despite all your best efforts I will remain a steadfast Jew!"

As Chassidim we know that there's only one possible response: move forward with even greater conviction. I've met some people who were shocked to hear that Lubavitch isn't planning to close up shop in India—as if any chassid could have even considered such an option!

We will send a clear message to those on high that the persecution is pointless, it merely strengthens us. Let this message ring loud and clear, and bring with it the end to this madness with the immediate revelation of Moshiach!

Rabbi Akiva Wagner is the dean of the Lubavitch Yeshivah of Toronto, Ontario.
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Rabbi Shmary Brownstein April 18, 2014

To Anonymous, Pittsburgh You are giving one of the answers to how the son was different from the daughter, proposed by Tosafot. But we can understand the Talmud's question as, how could someone who had worked so hard to keep others from being thirsty have his own son die of thirst? Just as it would be impossible that his digging wells should cause harm to his children, it likewise doesn't make sense that his family shouldn't be protected from the very thing he protected others from. It seems that the Talmud's own answer is that G-d is very particular with those close to Him, so that even the impossible can happen. Reply

Anonymous Pittsburgh April 7, 2014

Not seeing the problem Rabbi Chanina stated that a tzaddik's work does not cause the suffering of his children. Thirst is clearly not a result of well-digging, and more likely even the result of a lack thereof.

This doesn't seem possible. Yes, either connection with his father's efforts would certainly be painful, but the one that happened doesn't seem to fly in the face of the reasoning Rabbi Chanina provided? Reply

Norman F Birnberg Salida, CO/USA December 3, 2008

The Inexplicable And The True Judge I do not think the bullets fell on the Torah verse by accident. Nothing in the world is truly random. G-d called as were, our attention to the inexplicable. There is no rational answer for evil. There is no reason the terrorists had to hunt down and torture and murder Jews. And indeed the Torah tells to be silent, like on the deaths of the sons of Aaron. Two beloved people were taken from us. Baruch Dayan Ha Emet. So we submit to the True Judge. Reply

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