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Ta'anis 23


AGADAH: The Gemara relates how throughout his life, Choni ha'Me'agel was bothered by the verse, "... when Hashem returned the captives of Zion, we were like dreamers" (Tehilim 126:1) -- when Hashem returned the Jews from the Galus in Bavel which lasted for seventy years, it was like awakening from a slumber of seventy years. How could a person sleep for seventy years, Choni wondered.

He met a man planting a carob tree, and he asked him why he was planting a tree which would only bear fruit after seventy years. The man told him that just as his father had planted a carob tree for him, he, too, was planting a carob tree for his children. Afterwards, Choni sat down to eat his bread, and he was overcome with sleep. He became hidden behind a rock formation, and he slept for seventy years. When he woke up, he saw the grandson of the person who planted the carob tree picking carobs from the tree. He also saw that his donkey had given birth to herds of donkeys.

When he discussed subjects with the Chachamim in the Beis Midrash, they commented that his answers made the subjects "as clear as in the days of Choni ha'Me'agel." The Gemara says that nevertheless, they did not believe him when he said that he was Choni, and they did not give him proper respect. He Davened to Hashem to spare him the frustration, and he was taken from the world.

Choni's "lifelong question" seems almost ridiculous. The verse says only that "we were *like* dreamers (k'Cholmim)." It is clearly a metaphor, saying that life in the Babylonian exile passed like a dream. It does not say that they slept literally for seventy years. Why, then, was he bothered how a person could sleep for seventy years?

(a) The CHIDUSHEI HA'GE'ONIM in the Ein Yakov and the VILNA GA'ON (as recorded by his son in Sa'aras Eliyahu p. 12) explain that the seventy years that Choni wondered about represents the average lifespan of a person. Choni saw that the people in his generation were not concentrating on Torah, but they were wasting time on other pursuits. He wondered how could a person possibly spend his time in this world (seventy years) focused on transient, meaningless pursuits ("sleeping") without concentrating on one's true purpose?

He wanted to find out what causes people to waste their time in this world, spending their entire seventy-year lifespan doing nothing more than sleeping, with their eyes closed to the true purpose of life. Hashem revealed to him part of the answer. Hashem showed him a person planting a carob tree. He asked the person why he was planting a carob tree if he will not be around to enjoy its fruits, since it bears fruit only after seventy years. Choni recognized that most people waste their time pursuing meaningless pleasures in this world, because the pleasure of Olam ha'Ba is not immediate, while the pleasure of Olam ha'Zeh is immediate. People prefer to work towards immediate gratification, rather than to invest their energy in obtaining pleasure that will come only after many years.

Accordingly, in his conversation with the person planting the carob tree, Choni answers his own question why people waste their lives pursuing meaningless pleasures. He sees the person planting a carob tree, which is so incongruous to the way all other people act, and he realizes that most people are not interested in working for something which will give them benefits only after seventy years -- they are not interested in learning Torah and doing Mitzvos, the benefits of which a person does not reap until Olam ha'Ba.

When the Gemara says that he sat down to eat, it means that he realized that it was the desires of this world (represented by eating) which close a person's mind and causes him to be involved in meaningless pursuits. It was that involvement in the pleasures of this world which caused him to "be concealed by a rock" ("Yechezkel called the Yetzer ha'Ra, 'rock' " -- Sukah 52a), and to "fall asleep" from pursuing a meaningful life for seventy years.

When he awoke, he saw that his donkey ("Chamor") had given birth to many herds. Through man's immersing himself into the material pursuits of this world, man becomes irreversibly entrenched and cannot extract himself from the drive for worldly pleasure, represented by donkeys ("Chamor" = "Chumriyus" -- "a donkey is cold even in the hottest time of the year," Shabbos 53a).


QUESTION: When Aba Chilkiyah (the grandson of Choni ha'Me'agel) and his wife prayed for rain, his wife's prayers were answered first. The first reason that the Gemara gives why she was answered first is that the Tzedakah that she gave to poor people was more meaningful, since she gave food while her husband only gave money to the poor, and she was available in the home all the time, and whenever a poor person would come she would give him something. In return to her superior acts of Tzedakah, her prayers for rain were answered first.

The second reason that the Gemara gives is that she used to pray that the sinners in her neighborhood repent in Teshuvah, while her husband used to pray that they die. In return, she was rewarded that her prayers for rain were answered first.

According to the first reason -- that her acts of Tzedakah were superior -- we can understand why her prayers for rain were answered first. Since she provided sustenance to the poor, she merited that Hashem provided sustenance to the people through her prayers by sending rain.

What is the connection between praying that the sinner repent and having her prayers for rain answered first? What is the "measure for measure" reward? Why should rain come as a result of her praying that the sinners do Teshuvah? (YEFEH EINAYIM, cited in BEN YEHOYADA)


(a) When sinners repent, it is a form of rejuvenation. It is as if they are coming back to life. Similarly, the coming of the rains is a form of new life coming to the world. (This is close to the Ben Yehoyada's approach.)

(b) The Gemara (25B) tells us that Rebbi Eliezer and Rebbi Akiva both prayed for rain, but Rebbi Akiva's prayers were answered and Rebbi Eliezer's prayers were not answered. A Bas Kol issued forth and declared that the reason Rebbi Akiva's prayers were answered is not because he is greater than Rebbi Eliezer, but because he is "Ma'avir Al Midosav" -- he is forgiving of insult.

What does the Gemara mean that Rebbi Akiva was not greater than Rebbi Eliezer? If he was "Ma'avir Al Midosav" while Rebbi Eliezer was not, that should make him greater!

The answer, explains HAGAON RAV YISRAEL SALANTER (Or Yisrael #28), is that there are two different approaches to the service of Hashem. The attribute of Rebbi Eliezer was to be strict to uphold and protect the honor of Torah. This was like the attribute of Shamai (his mentor, Tosfos Shabbos 130b), who was known to be strict in that sense (Shabbos 31a). Rebbi Akiva, a student of the house of Hillel, mastered a different attribute -- that of humility and forgiving insult, the attribute of Hillel (ibid.). Both are equally valid approaches in serving Hashem, and therefore one cannot be called "greater" than the other. Their difference in approach was a Halachic argument like any other. Although in this case the Halachah was decided in favor of Hillel (Shabbos 30b), it in no way belittles the Avodas Hashem of Shamai and his followers, to whom the ruling did not yet apply.

If both approaches are equally important, then why was Rebbi Akiva answered and not Rebbi Eliezer? The answer is that when Davening for Rachamim (to have the rains fall), the person whose attribute is that of Rachamim will be answered, measure for measure, because it is Rachamim which is needed at such a time.

Rav Yisrael Salanter's approach may be used to explain our Gemara as well. Aba Chilkiyah's wife was answered first because her attribute was that of Rachamim, as was demonstrated by her prayers that the sinners not die, but that they do Teshuvah. In response to her prayer, Hashem had Rachamim on the people and sent rain. (M. Kornfeld)

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