Friday, March 2, 2012

"It is all for the good": Two Levels

Rabbi Akiva taught: A person should always say: “Everything that G-d does, He does for the good.” Rabbi Akiva was once traveling, when he arrived in a certain town. He asked for lodgings and was refused. Said he: “Everything that G-d does, He does for the good,” and went to spend the night in a field.

He had with him a rooster, a donkey and a lamp. A wind came and extinguished the lamp, a cat came and ate the rooster, a lion came and ate the donkey. Said he: “Everything that G-d does, He does for good.” That night, an army came and took the entire town captive. Said Rabbi Akiva to his disciples: “Did I not tell you that everything that G-d does, He does for good? If the lamp had been lit, the army would have seen me; if the donkey would have brayed or the rooster would have called, the army would have come and captured me."


Why was he called Nachum Ish Gam Zu (“This Too”)? Because whatever happened to him, he would say: “This too is for the good!” Once the Jews wanted to send a gift to the Roman Emperor. “Who will go?” they asked. “Let Nachum go, for he is well acquainted with miracles.” They sent along with him a chest full of precious stones and pearls. On the way, he stayed at an inn. During the night, the innkeepers took the contents of the chest and filled it with earth. In the morning, when Nachum saw what happened, he said: “This, too, is for good.”

When he arrived there, he gave the chest to the king. When the king saw that it was filled with earth, he wanted to kill all the Jews and said: “The Jews are mocking me!” Said Nachum: “This, too, is for good.”

Elijah the Prophet appeared disguised as one of the king’s ministers and said: “Perhaps this is the dust of their father Abraham, who would throw dust that turned into spears and straw that turned into arrows?” There was a country which the Roman armies could not conquer; they tried the earth brought by Nachum and succeeded in conquering it. So they took Nachum into the Emperor’s treasury, filled his chest with precious stones and pearls, and sent him off with great honor.


There is a significant difference between Rabbi Akiva’s experience and that of Nachum Ish Gam Zu. Both reacted to seemingly negative events with the confidence that G-d is doing them good rather than evil. But in the case of Rabbi Akiva, the events themselves remained negative: he was left without a roof over his head, in the dark, and he lost his rooster and donkey. The value of these negative events was only that they prevented a greater evil—falling into captivity. Seen in this light, they do not constitute a calamity but a salvation. The fact remains, however, that these experiences were not themselves good, only the implements of good.

This is the ultimate level of perception of which we are capable in exile: the understanding that despite how terrible and tragic something is in our experience, we know that there is a higher truth, a greater good which it serves. We might eventually discover this greater good, or perhaps never learn what it is; nevertheless, our faith in the goodness of G-d enables us to bear the hardship and pain of the perceived evil in our lives. But we are incapable of recognizing, or even conceiving of, the intrinsic goodness of the “evil” itself.

In the case of Nachum Ish Gam Zu, the “negative” event itself was revealed as a positive occurrence. The earth the thieves exchanged for the contents of his chest was more valuable than what they took, achieving far more than would a simple gift of gems to an emperor whose treasury was already filled with the same. The only possibly negative element in the whole affair is the anxiety and fear a person of lesser faith might have experienced; Nachum, of course, experienced nothing of the sort, since at no time did he doubt that only good transpires in G-d’s world. Upon waking in the morning and finding the chest filled with earth, he proceeded to the palace to deliver his gift, confident that all would be shown to have been for good. 
There will come a time when the veil of exile will lift, when the divine essence of existence will shine forth, unobscured by the shell of darkness that encases it today. On that day we shall proclaim, “This, too, is for good.” In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “I shall thank You, G-d, for having afflicted me,” for the quintessential goodness of the “affliction” itself will be revealed.

Based on an address by the Rebbe, Av 20, 5711 (August 22, 1951), adapted by Yanki Tauber

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