Our times are dark not only for the Jewish people but for all of civilization as we know it. Light will prevail, but we shouldn’t rely on miracles.
מתן אדם ירחיב לו (משלי יח)
The generosity of an individual provides him with expansiveness (Proverbs 18).
© Rabbi David Lapin, 2015
What the Midrash Means Series - 1:16
Our times are troubled. They call for innovative strategies to combat dark forces and villainous activity. But our times also call for a different response, one that has served us well for millennia.
The Midrash below (Vayikra Rabbah 5:4) tells a story of a previously wealthy man, Abba Yuden, who used to donate generously to support institutions of learning. One day after losing all his wealth, he saw that the emissaries from the Yeshiva, Rabbis Eliezer, Yehoshua and Akiva, had come to town to raise contributions. He hid in shame but his wife, noticing something was troubling him deeply gave him advice. “We have one field left,” she said, “ sell half of it and donate it to them.” He did so, and the Rabbis prayed for him and said “May Hashem fill all that you are lacking.”
After some time while ploughing his remaining half of the field, a ditch opened up and his cow fell into it and broke her leg. He climbed down to help her and there in the ditch Hashem enlightened his eyes and he found a treasure there and declared that it was for his own good that the cow had fallen. When the rabbis returned there on their next trip they he told them how their prayer had yielded dividends many times over. They told him that even though others had given more than he, they inscribed his name at the top of the list of donors. They showed him great honor and said of him “The generosity of an individual provides him with expansiveness (Proverbs 18).”
The story is both melancholy and beautiful. It is inspirationally heroic. However, on reading it I am struck by a note of dissonance: Why did the rabbis so callously accept the half field from this devastatingly poor man who had nothing left to give them? Why didn’t they encourage him to give them a mere token on that visit and bless him for the future?
Two astonishingly powerful ideas emerge from this observation in the Midrash.
- Even though we are required to conduct our lives according to natural laws and never to rely on miracles, the rabbis accepted the half field from Abba Yuden in the absolute certainty that their prayers would yield dividends for him far in excess of the value of his donation. Had they not known this with certainty, they would never have accepted his gift. Their certainty is not considered a reliance on miracle because the answering of a Tzaddik’s (righteous individual) prayer is not miraculous, it is perfectly natural. The fact that we are surprised when our prayers are answered demonstrates that we lack the faith that prayer is a direct cause of the desired outcome just as running water is the outcome of turning a tap. The only reason our prayers are often not answered is because we are not of the spiritual and ethical stature of the Rabbis who visited Abba Yuden. For them, relying on prayer was not reliance on miracle, it was reliance on natural cause and effect.
- It is still troubling though, why they didn’t pray for him without taking half of his last field. The answer to this question yields the second powerful insight. Prayer is powered by mesirut neffesh (acts of sacrifice). Acts of sacrifice transform and elevate the material world around one. It was Abba Yuden’s selfless action combined with the prayers of the tzaddikkim that generated the phenomenal wave of wealth for Abba Yuden. Without their prayers or without his mesirut neffesh it could not have happened. However with this potent combination of sacrifice and prayer, the resultant outcome was no miracle at all but an incidence of natural cause and effect.
Throughout the history of our people individuals, mothers and fathers, rabbis and leaders, have acted with mesirut neffesh and prayed with all their hearts. They have prayed for their children, for each other and for their people. Prayer is our way of life, it is what we do, it is our profession. Sacrifice and selflessness have been our destiny and have become our character. The combination of both has assured our survival even through some of the darkest times in history.
Once again we find ourselves in dark times. These times are dark not only for the Jewish people but for all of civilization as we know it. Light will prevail, but we shouldn’t rely on miracles. This period is a time for prayer – not only for the Jewish people but for all of humankind. It is also a time for selfless love and sacrifice. It is a time to stand up to bullying and abuse, to racism and hate, to anti-semitism as well as to intolerant secular atheism. This is a time to be counted as individuals who, tolerant of all cultures, are intolerant of those who show intolerance to others.
ויקרא רבה פ"ה ס"ד - מתן אדם ירחיב לו (משלי יח) מעשה בר' אליעזר ור' יהושע ורבי עקיבא שהלכו
לחולות אנטוכיא לעסק מגבת צדקה לחכמים והוה תמן חד בר נש והוה שמיה אבא יודן והוה יהיב פרנסה בעין טובה פעם אחד ירד מנכסיו וראה רבותינו שם ונתכרכמו פניו הלך לו אצל אשתו אמרה לו אשתו מפני מה פניך חולניות אמר לה רבותי כאן ואיני יודע מה לעשות אשתו שהית' צדקת ממנו אמרה לו לא נשתייר לנו אלא שדה פלוני בלבד לך מכור חציה ותנה להן הלך ומכר חציה ונתנה להן נתפללו עליו ואמרו המקום ימלא חסרונך לאחר ימים הלך לחרוש בחצי שדהו עם כשהוא חורש נפתחה הארץ לפניו ונפלה פרתו שם ונשברה רגלה ירד להעלותה והאיר הקב"ה עינו ומצא שם סימה אמר לטובתי נשברה רגל פרתי בחזירת רבותינו לשם שאלו עליו ואמרו מה אבא יודן עביד אמר להון הוא אבא יודן דעבדי אבא יודן דעיזיין אבא יודן דגמלי אבא יודן דתורי מן יכול למחמי סבר אפויא דאבא יודן כיון ששמע יצא לקראתן אמרו ליה מה אבא יודן עביד אמר להן עשתה תפלתכם פירות ופרי פירות אמרו לו חייך אף על פי שנתנו אחרים יותר ממך לך כתבנו בראש נטלוהו והושיבוהו אצלן וקראו עליו זה הפסוק מתן אדם ירחיב לו