Shabbos Nachamu

In his famous explanation of the arei miklat, the cities of refuge to which the perpetrators of unpremeditated murder are exiled, Rashi offers the following case:

The Almighty arranges for two people, each of whom committed an unwitnessed murder, to arrive at the same inn.  One of them, who had committed murder without premeditation, will slip while ascending a ladder and fall onto the other, who had committed murder wantonly and with full intent.  The latter will be killed, as punishment for his crime, and the former will be seen and this time exiled for both killings.  In this way, the True Judge will restore justice.

In Exodus 33:13, Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses the Lawgiver) asks HaShem to “make Your ways known to me.”  The Talmud (Berachos 7a) interprets this to mean that Moshe asked to understand why the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper.  According to the opinion of Rabbi Meir, HaShem did not grant Moshe’s request. The following story, presumably of midrashic origin, offers an insight into why such understanding is beyond us:

In the first case, HaShem allowed Moshe to witness a scene where an elderly general stopped to drink at a well.  As he leaned over to drink, the general’s money pouch fell from his pocket, after which he continued his journey unaware of his loss.  A short time later, a young man came along and discovered the money pouch.  With no one in sight and no distinguishing characteristics on the pouch, he kept the money for himself.

After a while, the general noticed that he was missing his money.  He retraced his steps until he arrived back at the well, which he surmised must be the place where he had lost his money.  He looked around and spotted an old man sleeping under a tree near the well.  The general accosted the man and accused him of being a thier.  When the man pleaded ignorance, the general flew into a rage and beat him to death.

Upon hearing the case, Moshe replied that the verdict was obvious:  the general deserves to die for killing the old man, and the young traveler must return the money to the general’s heirs.  Without commenting on Moshe’s  conclusion, HaShem presented him with the second case. 

A merchant and a young lieutenant were traveling together by carriage when a highway man blocked the road and demanded their money.  The merchant struggled to keep his money bag; in the course of their robber killed the merchant and flees.

The young lieutenant gave chase, but lost the robber in the woods.  However, as he was returning to the carriage, he discovered the merchant’s money bag, which the robber had apparently dropped as he took flight.  The lieutenant picked up the money bag and kept it for himself.

Once again, Moshe declared that the verdict is obvious:  the robber deserves death for killing the merchant, and the lieutenant must return the money to the merchant’s heirs.

HaShem then asked Moshe:  what would you say if I told you that the second story happened thirty years before the first story, and that the general in the first story was the lieutenant in the second?  The money he lost was equal to the money he had kept.  And what would you say if I told you that the old man in the first story was the robber in the second?  He was killed for the murder he committed.  And what would you say if I told you that the young traveler in the first story was the son of the merchant in the first?  The money returned to its rightful place.

And so you see, explained HaShem to Moshe, all human history is interconnected, and no event can be understood in isolation.  Without seeing the whole span of creation from beginning to end, no one can judge with absolute truth.  In each generation, judges are required to judge based on the evidence available to them.  That which is hidden from them will be dealt with either through hashgocha pratis — divine providence — or at the End of Days, when ultimate justice will be done.

Perhaps this is what the prophet means when he says in the Haftorah:  Every valley shall be raised, and every mountain shall be leveled… Revealed shall be the glory of HaShem, and all flesh as one shall see that the mouth of HaShem has spoken.

All the obstacles, all the highs and lows and twists and turns that seem to hinder us in our journey through life, all these will one day become like nothing —  not because they were figments of our imagination, but because they were placed before us to make us stronger and force us to achieve our potential by overcoming them.

When we are shown how we benefited from our suffering, when senselessness is shown to make sense, that will be our greatest comfort:  nachamu, nachamu ami — Be comforted, be comforted, My children.

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