Like a Strand of Hair

The beraisa repeats a story of Rabbi Lazar bei R’ Tzadoq and Abba Sha’ul ben Batnis, who were storekeepers in Jerusalem. They would fill their measure[d jars of oil] on erev Yom Tov and give them to buyer on Yom Tov [letting every last drop of sold oil drip into the buyer’s container overnight].R’ Chaninah ben Aqaviah said: even on chol hamo’ed they did this, so that the measures should be accurate[, since measuring things is prohibited on yom tov]. He also fined [himself] 300 jars and his friend fined [himself] 300 jars[, and donated them as repayment for any underage in any of the sales they made]. The sages said to them: you didn’t have to do this, but since you did and were stringent on yourselves, use them for the public good.
תני מעשה בי ר’ לעזר בי ר’ צדוק ואבא שאול בן בטנית שהיו חנוונים בירושלים והיו ממלין מידותיהן מעי”ט ונותנין אותן ללקוחות בי”ט
ר’ חנינה בן עקביה אומר אף בחולו של מועד היו עושין כן מפני מיצוי המידות. אף הוא כנס שלש מאות חביות וחבירו כינס שלש מאות חביות אמרו להן חכמים לא הייתם צריכין לעשות כן אלא הואיל והחמרתם על עצמכם יעשה בהן צורכי ציבור
— Yerushalmi Beitza 3:8 (vilna 16a)

ֵJust pausing here to take in these two early tannaim‘s notion of a proper chumerah. (They were one generation after Hillel and Shammai, and one or two before the end of the Second Temple.) As oil salesman, R’ Eliezer bar Tzadoq and Abba Sha’ul ben Batnis lived in perpetual worry that the slow pace of oil’s viscosity would mean that they stole from their customers. On the level of halakhah, since the norm was to forgive a drop or two that didn’t make it into the buyer’s vessel, this isn’t real theft.

Still, as Rava states (Shabbos 31a) centuries later, the first question one is asked after death is, “נשאת ונתת באמונה — Did you buy and sell with integrity?” And that is where these two tannaim thought it was important to be stringent.

One time [R’ Elazar ben R’ Tzadoq] got ill [in his right hand] and our sages went to visit him.He said to them: Look see what happened to this right [hand] which measured with such honesty.Rabbi Chanina said: Whomever said that the All-Merciful is one to let things slide, his intestines will slide. Rather, He is patient and collects His own. Rabbi Acha said: It is written “… it is very stormy [נִשְׂעֲרָה] around Him.” He is exacting with them [those around Him, i.e. the righteous], like the strand of a hair [כחוט שערה]. Rabbi Yosi bei Rabbi Bun said:  That is not the source. Rather [it’s], “… and He is awe/fear-inspiring to all those around him.” His awe/fear on those close [to Him] is greater than on those who are far.
פעם אחת חלה ונכנסו רבותינו לבקרו אמר לון אתון חמון הדא ימינא דהוות מכילה בקושטא
א”ר חנינה מאן דאמר דרחמנא וותרן יתוותרון בני מעוי אלא מאריך רוחיה וגבי דידיה
אמר ר’ אחא כתיב (תהילים נ)  “וּסְבִיבָיו נִשְׂעֲרָה מְאֹד” מדקדק עמהן כחוט שערה
אמר רבי יוסה בי ר’ בון לא מטעם הזה אלא (תהילים פט) “וְנוֹרָא עַל כָּל סְבִיבָיו” מוראו על הקרובים יותר מן הרחוקים:
— ibid.

Contemporary Anglo Jewry has produced a large library of books on Torah-based Self-Help. A primary pitfall to watch out for with such literature is that self-help, while of value, doesn’t have exactly the same goal as does Torah. The Torah’s goal isn’t a happy life, but a meaningful and productive one. There is no promise that this will lead to happiness in this world. And even happiness in the world-to-come, where there is such a promise, is not supposed to be our goal in this life; that would defy the word of Antignos ish Sokho (Avos 1:3), “אל תהיו כעבדים המשמשים את הרב על מנת לקבל פרס ־־ Do not be like a servant who serves his master for the sake of receiving reward.” From my notes of a talk by R’ Ephraim Becker’s lecture at the Mussar Kallah in Houston (2-May-04):

Self-help addresses (1) loss of productivity; and (2) personal pain. In Torah (including Mussar) we’d call these yisurim (trevails). But Mussar wouldn’t want you to attack yisurim. Yisurim are triggers, part of the solution. They aren’t the things that need changing, they are causes to get up and change something. Mussar adds to self-help the notion of duty. One doesn’t try to eliminate yisurim, but their causes — which reside in flaws in our ability to carry out our mission.

(I already wrote on this topic in an entry titled “Psychology and Mussar“, see there for further elaboration.)

Similarly, there is an entire genre of stories that would have the reader convinced that given enough commitment to Torah and mitzvos, one would live a life where (to give one example) the only airplanes one would miss were ones that were going to crash; where one mitzvah saved someone from being the victim of the World Trade Center collapse; etc…

The confusion is a basically functional view of religion. Rabbi JB Soloveitchik commented on the billboards put up by a Christian group that promised “A family that prays together, stays together”. This may be true, but it reduces prayer from a value in-and-of itself into a means for another cause. No matter how noble the goal of family harmony is, the campaign misses and encourages the reader to miss the entire purpose and value of prayer.

Or a more Jewish example… A catastrophe hits one of us, and Jews from around the world pray for a positive outcome. What if the outcome doesn’t happen: If the brutes in Mumbai actually succeed in murdering a young couple? If we learn that the kidnapped child was the victim of a brutal killing? I heard in the name of more than one rabbi that the prayers were not for naught because Hashem saved them up in His warehouse, and someday, some other couple or child will be saved.

One doesn’t pray in order to keep the family together, or even in order to get the things one prays for. The value of prayer is in turning to Hashem for one’s needs, regardless of whether He chooses to respond as we desire.

What Chazal actually tell us, is that “שכר מצווה בהאי עלמא ליכא ־־ reward for mitzvos is lacking in this world.” (Chullin 142a)

Our gemara demonstrates this. The most righteous people are the ones whom Hashem judges most harshly in this world. In our case, Rav Elazar ben Rav Tzadoq is described as being in the very hand that he used to be meticulous his business ethics because of that very mitzvah!

Why? How is that just?

אמר רבה בר רב הונא אמר רב הונא ואמרי לה אמר רב הונא א”ר אלעזר מן התורה ומן הנביאים ומן הכתובים בדרך שאדם רוצה לילך בה מוליכין אותו

מן התורה דכתיב (במדבר כב):  לֹא תֵלֵךְ עִמָּהֶם, וכתיב: קוּם לֵךְ אִתָּם

מן הנביאים דכתיב (ישעיהו מח): אני ה’ אלהיך מלמדך להועיל מדריכך בדרך <זו> תלך

מן הכתובים דכתיב (משלי ג): אם ללצים הוא יליץ ולענוים יתן חן

Rabbah bar Rav Hunah said that [his father] R’ Huna said, and others say it was Rav Hunah [himself] who said that Rabbi Elazar said:

From the Torah, from the Nevi’im, and from Kesuvim [one learns]: In a way that a person desires to go, that is where they lead him.

Someone who chooses to walk the path of meticulous business ethics is taken by G-d further in that direction. Hashem prods R’ Eliezer b”R Tzadoq to be even more careful, to see what other things he can do to be even more fiscally honest. Hashem judges the righteous on even a hairbreadth because the righteous person’s path only has a small hairbreadth left to go.

Similarly, we recently had a discussion on Avodah in which someone asked:

malachim [angels] making mistakes???

people think that maybe their marriages don’t work out because the malach [angel] who either named them, or set up their zivug [marriage pairing] (didn’t hear correctly)

how is this possible?

In a reply, I suggested that these people were erring because of a faulty assumption:

The assumption that one’s bashert is their path to happiness is self-help, not Torah. Perhaps it’s bashert that one’s spouse is supposed to be a source of triggers for change?

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