This week I will depart from the usual theme of parshat hashavua and invite you all to join me and my family in celebrating our own holiday. Ten years ago this week my wife and five of my children were involved in a very severe car accident that included the car they were in flipping over several times and some even being thrown from the car during the flipping. Through the direct intervention of God, all family members in the car walked away with only scratches and one broken arm. Road trips to the north of the country now include making a special bracha when we pass the spot of the accident, and we have adopted the 3rd of Adar as a family holiday from that point forward. All of this is so that we do not take for granted the great gift that Hashem gave us.
Over the years I have written on various aspects related to showing our appreciation on this special time including a discussion relevant to leap years and which Adar should be celebrated https://harova.org/torah/view.asp?id=1710) . It has been ten years since that fateful day and I would like to add an additional element to the things that I have written in the past on the subject.
Most people are familiar with the famous figure Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, and many have heard the impactful story of his fleeing to a cave to escape the Romans. He and his son survived for years in this cave and spent their time learning Torah, reaching unparalleled heights of scholarship and spirituality. The account goes on to describe the challenges that he had in reentering the general society around him and eventually he returns to a normal life. I would like to focus on the last scene of the story as told to us in the Gemara (Shabbat 33b-34a):
Rabbi Shimon said: Since a miracle transpired for me, I will go and repair something for the sake of others in gratitude for God’s kindness, as it is written: “And Jacob came whole to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Paddan-aram; and he graced the countenance of the city” (Genesis 33:18). Rav said, the meaning of: And Jacob came whole, is: Whole in his body, whole in his money, whole in his Torah. And what did he do? And he graced the countenance of the city; he performed gracious acts to benefit the city. Rav said: Jacob established a currency for them. And Shmuel said: He established marketplaces for them. And Rabbi Yoḥanan said: He established bathhouses for them. In any event, clearly one for whom a miracle transpires should perform an act of kindness for his neighbors as a sign of gratitude. He said: Is there something that needs repair? They said to him: There is a place where there is uncertainty with regard to ritual impurity and the priests are troubled by being forced to circumvent it, as it is prohibited for them to become ritually impure from contact with a corpse. There was suspicion, but no certainty, that a corpse was buried there. Therefore, they were unable to definitively determine its status. Rabbi Shimon said: Is there a person who knows that there was a presumption of ritual purity here? Is there anyone who remembers a time when this place was not considered ritually impure, or that at least part of it was considered to be ritually pure? An Elder said to him: Here ben Zakkai planted and cut the teruma of lupines. In this marketplace Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Zakkai, who himself was a priest, once planted lupines that were given to him as teruma. On that basis, the conclusion can be drawn that it was definitely ritually pure. Rabbi Shimon, like Jacob, also did so and took steps to improve the city and examined the ground (Tosafot). Everywhere that the ground was hard, he pronounced it ritually pure as there was certainly no corpse there, and every place that the ground was soft, he marked it indicating that perhaps a corpse was buried there. In that way, he purified the marketplace so that even priests could walk through it.
Rabbi Shimon decided that he needed to take social action as a response to the miracle that he experienced. What is the logic of such a step? Why was the miracle the impetus for his actions?
Replenishing the account –
The Ein Yaakov explains that when one experiences something out of the ordinary to the magnitude that it can be deemed a miracle, they need to be concerned about the fact that they may have used up precious credit with God. This is not a simple lucky or coincidental event but one of proportions that required God to intervene and change the simple statistics in your favor. This may have a price to it. As a result, it is more than logical to look for the promotion of the public good for two reasons. Firstly, to replenish the “supply” of good deeds possibly spent while being saved and in addition it can be seen as a demonstrative act of selflessness, signaling God that just as we are acting altruistically we ask Him to see the miracle in a similar vein.
This idea seems to be the actual text of the bracha that one makes on such occasions, birkat hagomel – הגומל לחייבים טובות – – who bestows goodness on the guilty.
We recognize God as the One who does good for the unworthy. The bracha could have been phrased in a much more positive way, noting that God has provided me/us with great kindness, but it goes further than that as describes the individual as a חייב unworthy of such good.
The individual and the group –
Rav Kook offers another outlook on this. In his work Ein Ayah he writes that one should always try to view one’s life in terms of the bigger picture. We do not function in our own little bubble; the individual is part of the community. The more we can be aware of our communal role the more that we can live a fulfilling lifestyle.
It is precisely at the moment that a person feels that they are the center of attention, when he feels that in fact the normal rules of conduct of nature were pushed aside in his honor, that he needs to take a step back and realize that he is just one element in the scheme of things. If we read the story carefully I think we can notice that it is not simply that Rabbi Shimon did something for those around him but even before that he is searching for what to do.
“He said: Is there something that needs repair?” The searching itself has a value to it, every moment of looking around and trying to determine what other people are lacking is a central part to the project.
On Pesach we deal with this challenge from the opposite perspective. We have a national miracle and we do our best to have the individual see themselves as having experienced it personally. In the reading of Rav Kook we try to take the individual event and give it communal impact.
Post miracle –
The many halachik imperatives after being spared from a threatening event all point to an important idea. When we go through a traumatic event and the outcome is positive we need to transform our lives into a post miracle syndrome. There are many people who have been terribly hurt in traumatic events and they carry the scars for many years. They deserve our attention and any help that can be extended to them. Those who have been involved in a traumatic event with miraculous results need to live the rest of their lives with the appreciation for what they have been given and find ways to add good to the world.