Rabbi Boaz Genut
Former Rosh Kollel in St. Louis
Former Executive Director of Torah Mitzion
Currently Director of the Department of Marriage and Community Affairs at Tzohar
“Hashem is good to all; and His tender mercies are over all His works” (Tehilim 145:9). Rabbi Levi said: Hashem is good to all who are His works. Shmuel said: Hashem is good to all who follow His characteristics such as having tender mercies. Rabbi Yehoshua from Sachnin on behalf of Rabbi Levi said: Hashem is good to all and from his characteristic of mercy he contributes to his works.
… It happened in the days of Rabbi Tanchuma that the people of Israel needed rain. They approached Rabbi Tanchuma saying, “May the Rabbi decree a Ta’anit (Fast Day)?”
He decreed a Ta’anit. The first day went by, so did the second and the third but rain didn’t come.
Rabbi Tanchuma went into the Beit Midrash and told the people, “My Sons, you should fill yourself up with mercy for one another and Hashem will have mercy on you.”
They started to give Tzedaka to the poor. As they were doing so, they noticed a man giving money to a woman he had divorced.
They approached Rabbi Tanchuma and told him: Why should we do if we see other people sin?
The Rabbi asked them, “What did you see?”
They told him, “We have seen a man giving money to a woman he had divorced.”
The Rabbi sent for the person.
As the person arrived he asked him, “What is your relationship with the woman?”
The man answered, “She is my divorced wife.”
The Rabbi asked, “Why did you give her money?”
The man answered, “Rabbi, I’ve seen her in trouble and had mercy for her.”
At this point Rabbi Tanchuma raised his hands towards heaven and said, “Master of the Universe, See this man who had no financial obligation to that woman, but as he noticed she’s in trouble, had mercy for her; you are known to have Mercy, and we are the children of Abraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. Shouldn’t you have mercy for us?”
Immediately rain started to fall and the land was watered. [Bereshit Raba 33,3]
This Midrash combines both an aggadic method of interpretation and an aggadic story as a supplement. We will explore it step by step. The first part brings three different interpretations to the pasuk. It looks like they all tried to explain the same difficulty. The verse seems to duplicate itself. Isn’t the meaning of being “good to all” the same as having “mercy towards his works”? If we follow the pshat commentaries, the answer would be very simple. But using the aggadic method makes a difference. All the Rabbis understand that the first part is limited by the second part. Rabbi Levi explains that wicked people are not Hashem’s “work”. Their unfaithful behavior expelled them from receiving Hashem’s mercy. Shmuel narrows it even more; only people who walk on the path of Hashem and have good manners will be eligible for mercy. Rabbi Yehoshua from Sachnin takes it one step further. Only a person that takes action and shows mercy for others will have the merit of Hashem’s being good to him or her.
As a supplement for these ideas, the midrash brings the story about the rain and Rabbi Tanchuma. The need for rain in Eretz Yisrael is essential. Ancient agriculture in Israel was totally depended on rain. From a theological perspective the amount of rain was an indication of Hashem’s closeness to his people. Having rain is a blessing, but lacking rain was supposed to start a self-examination and teshuva process. The main problem was trying to discover what Hashem wanted from us.
One time, in the days of Rabbi Tanchuma, there wasn’t enough rain. The people approached their rabbi. At this point we would have expected them to ask him what they should do. However, we find them telling him what to do. They want him to decree a fast. Why won’t they decree it themselves? Probably, because one needs a rabbinic authorization for a fast. He wasn’t their guide, leader or even just adviser. The rabbi was an authority but no more than that. That may explain their request. They treated everything in a very legal way. A Ta’anit is known to be an action you take in days of sorrow. Fasting can help a person to recall what he might have forgotten. But when you engage in a fast simply because it’s a legal entity, it turns out to be meaningless.
Rabbi Tanchuma let them make their mistake. As soon as they realized that ritualistic formality is not effective, he goes into the Beit Midrash and guides them. The atmosphere of the Beit Midrash is less formal, more creative and sensitive to nuances. He is teaching them the essence of Avodat Hashem; act the way Hashem does; walk in the path of Hashem; follow his footsteps. Chesed is the most fundamental characteristic of Hashem; this was the core for the entire creation.
So the students start to give tzedaka. Tzedaka is one of many deeds that fall into the category of chesed. But Tzedaka is the most formal one. And indeed their eyes were still searching for a formal negative behavior that they could point to as the cause of their troubles.
After a while they find a man giving money to a woman he had divorced. According to Jewish law, after getting divorced the man and woman are prevented from any personal interaction between them. The idea is to allow each of them to start a new page in life leaving the past behind him or her. The man in the story was in technical violation of this law.
The people tell Rabbi Tanchuma about this man, but he is not in a hurry to find fault. He calls him and asks for more information. It is hard to tell from the story what was the atmosphere during the conversation but I think it is safe to say that some people were looking for someone to blame. But the Rabbi, after listening, was impressed with his pure and innocent intention. Rather than finding fault, he finds this act to be the best justification for asking for mercy from Hashem.
Indeed the man had technically broken the law. However, having mercy for someone means that we can see beyond only the legal aspect. Sometimes a person should be examined solely by his or her intentions. When we turn to Hashem to ask for rain, we know we may not technically deserve it. Nevertheless, we ask for it anyway. We sometimes need to ask Hashem to look beyond the formal.