The shocking wave of terrorism in Jerusalem, wherein we have witnessed the cold blooded murder of Jews, makes us consider the following question: what is preventing the righteous Jewish community of Jerusalem from receiving God’s protection? Why does it seem that God is punishing us rather than helping us to solve the difficult problems that confront us on a daily basis?
This is an example of the theodicy problem: defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil. The finite human being does not possess the ability to understand the ways of God’s world. Even so, by analogy to our teacher, Moses, we are required to try, each of us at our own level, to achieve some level of spiritual understanding. During these past high holidays, this topic has been captured in my personal prayers.
Fortunately, major insights and understandings as to potential answers to these questions were presented in the Hoshana Rabba lecture given by Rachelle Sprecher Fraenkel this year at Matan. I would like to share her thoughts with you.
Ms. Frankel opened her address by quoting from the Talmud Bavli. In Masechet Ta’anit, Daf 7B, the gemara quotes Rav Ami’s statement that rains are only withheld because of the sin of robbery. On the next page (Ta’anit 8A) the gemara quotes another statement by,Rav Ami, that rains only fall for the sake of baalei emunah, “people of faith.” Rav Ami explains that we know this from Tehillim 85:12: “Truth (emet) will sprout from the earth and righteousness will look down from Heaven.” In other words, rain falls for the sake of people who are faithful and true.
Which begs the question: who are these “faithful” people whose “truth” renders them deserving of the gift of rain? The gemara (Ta’anit 8A) goes on to state that we see the greatness of baalei emunah in the “fable of the weasel and the cistern” (the hulda and the bor), adding, “As with one who is faithful to (believes in) the weasel and cistern (story), all the more so one who is faithful to G-d.” So what “faith” are the fable (and the gemara) talking about?
The gemara refers to the fable of the weasel and cistern without retelling it, but Rashi and Tosephot recount the tale of the young daughter of an established family, who was traveling home. She was very beautiful, was finely dressed, and was wearing jewelry. Unfortunately, she lost her way, and walked around aimlessly. The sun shone brightly, the weather became very warm, and she became thirsty. She found a cistern, but the water was very far down inside. Seeing a rope hanging at the side of the of the cistern, she lowered herself down into the cistern to the water..
When she finished drinking, she wanted to get out but she was unable to climb up, so she screamed for help. A young man passing by heard her cries, looked down and saw her, and called to her. She called back, “Are you a man or a demon?” “I am a man,” he answered. He then asked, “If I lift you out of the cistern, will you marry me?” She replied, “I give you my word that I will marry you.”
The man lifted the woman out of the cistern, and seeing her beauty, wanted to marry her immediately. “From what nationality are you?” she asked. “I am a Jew, from a nearby town, and I am a Cohen,” he said. “I am also from a nearby town. I come from a well-respected family,” she replied. “Why then, would you wish to marry me without ketubah and kiddushin?”
The two young people made a binding covenant to each other to marry. The woman asked, “Who will witness this solemn promise?” A weasel scampered in front of them. “The heavens, this weasel, and cistern shall witness the solemn promise between us.” The young man and woman then went their own ways.
The woman remained faithful to her promise. Every time a suitor approached her family, wishing her hand in marriage, she refused. Many were interested because she was both wealthy and beautiful. They tried to win her interest or pressure her father for her hand in marriage. She just became agitated whenever any man approached her, tearing both her garments and the clothes of her suitor. She would fly into a fit until the young man would leave. Thus she remained faithful to her promise and waited for the young man from the cistern.
What happened with the man? After leaving the young woman he went back to his city. He became involved with his work and forgot about his promise. He married someone else. His new wife became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When the young boy was just three months old, tragedy struck. The child was bitten by a weasel and died.
His wife became pregnant and gave birth to a second son, but the young child fell into a cistern and died as well. The man’s wife said to him, “If these children would have died of natural causes, I would have said to you that this is God’s will, but since both these young children died such unusual deaths, I am suspicious. Is there something, my dear husband that you are not telling me?” The man then told the entire story to his wife. She felt she had no choice other than to divorce him. “Go,” she said, “to whom God has chosen for you.”
The man gave her a divorce, left his town and journeyed to the town of the woman from the cistern.. She was known to refuse any man who approached her, and she appeared to be deranged. The man approached the father of the woman and told him the story of the covenant between them and the role of the weasel and the cistern as witnesses. The man said, “I accept any deficiencies that she may have now, and I am ready to keep my promise.” The father arranged for witnesses and the marriage took place.
The woman regained her sanity completely and bore many sons, and the couple amassed much wealth. As stated in Psalms 101:6: “…my eyes are on the faithful of the land” (נאמני ארץ).
Who, then, are those who are “faithful” to the “weasel and cistern,” and, thereby, to God, such that they are worthy of the Heavenly gift of rain?
Rashi and the Radak explain that the faithful people of truth are those who conduct business faithfully and truly, that is, with the highest level of ethics, always keeping their word. This fits both with Rav Ami’s previous statement that rain is withheld for robbery, as well as with a discussion in the gemara a few pages later, on Daf 12B. There, the mishna teaches that if prayers for rain go unanswered, the rabbinical court decrees public fast days. According to Abaye, half of each fast day is spent determining the potential deeds and misdeeds of the congregation and individuals, particularly, whether there is theft or corruption in the city.
For misdeeds that are discovered, the injured parties are appeased. All “wronged” individuals are addressed in an effort to “right” the transgressions. After this process has been successfully concluded, the community engages in Torah study and prayers for mercy to complete the fast day. According to this interpretation, we see that the withholding of blessing is due to a lack of proper conduct in business affairs.
Another interpretation is that the gemara means that withholding of God’s blessing of rain is a direct result of personal infidelity, mainly in marital and interpersonal affairs. Here, people are “faithful” to the “weasel and cistern” when they learn its lesson, refraining from behaving as the young man initially did when he broke his word to the woman of the cistern. An additional explanation for the idea of emuna in the “weasel and cistern” is that people who are “believers” are deserving of rain — anyone who “believes” in the “weasel and cistern” (and understands the fable’s message) will be a believer in God, who will then reward him by doing “justice” and granting the gift of rain.
So, what the Talmud and Ms. Fraenkel are telling us is that blessing of the land is a result of faithfulness. If we are faithful to each other, both in the way we conduct our businesses and in our personal lives, then we merit God’s blessing and protection. We much search our actions and the actions of the city in which we live when we see that God seems not to favor us.
The objective to repair ourselves, at times, may seem urgent and overwhelming. Perhaps, upon reflection, we may not have prayed sufficiently or perhaps our actions have not changed. One could argue that Hoshana Rabba has passed and the “petek” of our yearly judgment has been delivered.
The Baal Shem Tov and Hassidic masters note, however, that there is a chance for a tikkun for one’s yearly judgment all the way up to Hannukah. Perhaps, there is still more work to do to restore the relationships between ourselves. There remains more time for us to plead our case to our Creator at a time when our future seems uncertain. We should view this opportunity as a challenge as we leave the high holy day season and embark on the New Year.
This essay is based on the Hoshana Rabba Lecture given by Rachelle Sprecher Fraenkel at Matan on 03 October 2015 and the Talmud and Tosophot in Masechet Taanit, daf 7-12.