To intermit the plague

Israel’s new coronavirus czar, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, has a name with Talmudic significance. The Babylonian Talmud (Ta’anit 21a) tells us of a sage named Nahum of Gamzu, who would say about every event in his life “This too is for the best (gam zu le-tova)”– despite the fact that he was a blind quadriplegic leper, “the legs of whose bed had to be placed in bowls of water to prevent the ants from climbing on him.” His students were alarmed by his condition.

Thereupon his disciples said to him: Master, since you are wholly righteous, why has all this befallen you?

He replied: I have brought it all upon myself. Once I was journeying on the road and was making for the house of my father-in-law and I had with me three donkeys, one laden with food, one with drink and one with all kinds of delicacies, when a poor man met me and stopped me on the road and said to me, Master, give me something to eat. I replied to him, Wait until I have unloaded something from the donkey; I had hardly managed to unload something from the donkey when the man died [from hunger]. I then went and laid myself on him and exclaimed, May my eyes which had no pity upon your eyes become blind, may my hands which had no pity upon your hands be cut off, may my legs which had no pity upon your legs be amputated, and my mind was not at rest until I added, may my whole body be leprous.

Thereupon his pupils exclaimed: Woe to us that we see you like this!

To this he replied: Woe to me did you not see me like this.

Nahum’s condition does not prevent him from teaching many disciples, including Rabbi Akiva, whom he trains for 22 years (BT Hagiga 12a). It does, however, keep him from touching a scroll or entering the study hall. The same passage calls Nahum a miracle-worker, but he does not rely on miracles where health is concerned. He isolates himself at home for decades, and yet his Torah touches everyone. The deep concern for one’s fellow human being is certainly echoed in Rabbi Akiva’s dictum: “‘Love your fellow as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18) –this is the great principle of the Torah (Sifra ad loc.).”

And yet, Rabbi Akiva himself fails to transmit this to his own students.

It was said that Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of disciples, from Gabbat to Antipatris, and all of them died at the same time because they did not exhibit proper regard for each other… Rav Hama bar Abba or, it might be said, Rav Hiya bar Avin said: All of them died a cruel death. What was it? Rav Nahman explained: Diphtheria.

It’s not clear what the lack of proper regard consists of. Do they fail to follow Nahum of Gamzu’s teaching about feeling the distress of others, or do they fail to follow Nahum’s example of isolating so as not to spread disease? Are these even two different things?

I could not help but think of that as I heard of the pressure being put upon our Professor Gamzu to allow a lessening of restrictions on assembling in synagogues for Tisha be-Av, which begins tonight. Apparently, when everyone is sitting on the floor, amid extreme heat, while fasting, that’s the time to pack the shuls.

Now, the Mishna, Gemara, even Shulhan Arukh, note that the month of Av as a whole is not a time to tempt fate. A Jew with a court date in the month should do everything to push it off, Halakha states (OH 551:1). But at the height of this period of misfortune and mourning, amidst a second pandemic wave threatening to overwhelm our hospitals and healthcare workers, it is more important to read the Book of Lamentations with as many people as possible present? Ronni Gamzu would tell you that is sanctimonious malpractice. And Nahum of Gamzu would agree.

About the Author
Yoseif Bloch is a rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.
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