The Gemara then relates that a certain Chasid who used to dig water wells to
provide water for travelers, had a daughter who was tragically swept away by
a river while she was on the way to her wedding. (From the words of the
Bavli in Bava Kama (50a), it appears that this Chasid was none other than
Nechunya.) Rebbi Pinchas ben Yair prayed to Hashem and said, "Is it possible
that this person honored his Creator with water, and now his Creator
punishes him with water?" At that moment, a commotion was heard in the city,
as the daughter returned safe and sound.
If Hashem does not punish a person with the thing in which he excels in his
service of Hashem -- as Rebbi Pinchas ben Yair expressed and the second
incident demonstrates -- then how could Hashem allow Nechunya's son to die
(a) TOSFOS (Bava Kama 50a, Yevamos 121b) explains that since Nechunya
excelled in *providing water*, the fact that his son died of thirst is not
considered suffering with the same thing with which Nechunya excelled. His
son suffered from a *lack* of water, whereas Nechunya excelled in
*providing* water. However, for his daughter to die by drowning in a flood
of water would have been a punishment in the exact same area in which
Nechunya excelled -- providing water, and Hashem would not do such a thing.
Alternatively, Nechunya dug wells, but did not provide the water to fill
them, which came naturally through rain. His daughter couldn't die in the
pit of a *well*, but his son could die from lack of *water*. (RASHI in
Yevamos 121b DH Chofer Shichin, according to ETZ YOSEF ad loc. This does not
conform to the Yerushalmi's description of "honoring his Creator *with
(b) The SHITAH MEKUBETZES (Bava Kama 50a) suggests that there is no such
concept that Hashem never harms a person with the object of the Mitzvah in
which one excelled. Hashem has His own calculations, based on His infinite
wisdom, which we cannot comprehend. Here, though, Rebbi Pinchas ben Yair was
offering a *prayer* to Hashem on behalf of the Chasid's daughter. Rebbi
Pinchas ben Yair's Tefilah aroused Hashem's mercy, and Nechunya's daughter
was saved. His son, though, died of thirst *after Rebbi Pinchas ben Yair had
passed away*, when his Tefilah was no longer effective.
REBBI ELIYAHU FULDA adds that this might be the intention of the Yerushalmi
that says that his daughter was saved by an angel that had the appearance of
Rebbi Pinchas ben Yair. She was saved in the merit of his prayer on her
behalf, and therefore the force that saved her manifested itself in the
likeness of Rebbi Pinchas ben Yair. In fact, this may even be the difference
between the two descriptions offered by the Yerushalmi as to how the
daughter was saved. The one that says she was saved by a branch, is of the
opinion that Hashem never punishes the righteous with that in which they
excelled, while the one that says she was saved by the likeness of Rebbi
Pinchas is of the opinion that only Rebbi Pinchas' interjection saved her.
(KORBAN HA'EDAH; ETZ YOSEF in Yevamos 121b)
(c) The MISHNAS ELIYAHU explains that the principle that Hashem does not
permit harm to befall someone from the object of the Mitzvah in which he
excels applies only if that person performs the Mitzvah entirely l'Shem
Shamayim, for the sake of Hashem with no other motives. When a person
performs a Mitzvah in that way, the object of that Mitzvah cannot harm him.
When Nechunya's daughter presumably drowned, Nechunya was doing the Mitzvah
of providing water for the travelers entirely l'Shem Shamayim. Perhaps at a
later time, though, when his son died of thirst, he had in mind other
motivations and he did not do the Mitzvah solely for the sake of Hashem.
When that occurs, Hashem is "Medakdek Im Tzadikim k'Chut ha'Se'arah," and
that is why Nechunya's son died of thirst.