No line in the Gemara is irrelevant; there are no digressions. A seeming aside actually belongs inside our hearts and speaks volumes. Sometimes we understand and sometimes we sigh and whisper, “Perhaps next time I will get it.”
Last week, in Daf Yomi, we almost sloughed over a life-changing vignette, but we caught ourselves and so the words lifted our hearts.
The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 25a) was discussing the intricate laws of Kiddush Hachodesh, Sanctification of the New Moon. Rabbon Gamliel was relating the tradition he had received that the rebirth of the new moon can never be less than after a specific amount of time. The Gemara then records an apparently anomalous event: “That day, the mother of Ben Zaza died and Rabbon Gamliel eulogized her a great eulogy – not because she was worthy, but in order that the people should know that bais din had not sanctified the month on that day.”
Now, Rashi explains that “by delivering the eulogy on that day, Rabbon Gamliel was promulgating to all that the next day was not Rosh Chodesh, when it is forbidden to deliver a eulogy.” But what of Ben Zaza’s mother? Was there indeed some hidden reason why she merited a major hesped given by the nosi of Klal Yisroel? Chazal do not address the subject. However, in our chaburah, I ventured a suggestion. Although the Gemara here chose not to reveal all, there is a cosmic rule that Hashem does not withhold reward due any creature (Pesachim 118a; Bava Kamma 38b; Tanchuma, Parshas Naso 13). Growing up with Yiddish as my first language, I recall clearly my parents z”l often saying, “Der fun Oiven bleibt keinmol nisht shuldik – Hashem never remains owing anyone anything.”
Although our daf is limited to 45 minutes of everyone’s busy morning, I couldn’t help but quote the story told by the Sefer Chassidim that “there was a certain Jew whose heart overflowed with love for every other Jew. Whenever he attended a funeral, his heart ached for the aveilim. He would therefore always remove his shoes when they were obligated to so, sharing in their pain. This wonderful man passed away on the eve of Tisha B’Av and was buried the next day, when a large crowd accompanied him shoeless to receive his final honor. Chesed noted, duly rewarded.
The hour was late, Shacharis was looming, but another memory burst forth. The story is told (see Niflaosav Livnei Adam, page 168) about a group of young yeshiva students who went on an appropriate trip during the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah. They were planning to go to the Galilee to visit the graves of Rav Shimon Shezuri and Rav Yishmoel Kohein Gadol, who were interred there, and receive inspiration for the coming holy days. To their immense disappointment, a large truck had broken down in the middle of the road, not allowing their bus to pass through. However, their rebbi had a sudden thought. “Let’s take a detour by foot,” he announced to their glee, “to the village of Peki’in, which is not far from here. There we can visit the famous cave where Rav Shimon Bar Yochai and his son Rav Eliezer wrote the Zohar.”
The children agreed with great excitement and they proceeded to the home of Mrs. Zinati, who for many decades had stood guard over this holy place and had the key for those who wished to enter properly to daven. They all hoped to even get a glimpse of the stream from which the holy Tannaim drank for thirteen miraculous years. However, here again their plans seemed to be thwarted. When they got to the ancient shul that tradition claimed was in existence since the time of the second Bais Hamikdosh, it turned out that a funeral was already in progress. They soon discovered that it was none other than the levayah of Geveret Zinati herself. Sadly, here was no minyan of shomrei Torah umitzvos until the yeshiva boys unexpectedly showed up. All felt that Hashem had sent 100 talmidei yeshiva to grant her the honor she deserved for her loyal decades of tending to the kavod of the Tannaim Hakedoshim. Hashem pays up at the end.
But apparently, we were not done yet. One of our chaveirim, Reb Dovid Rabinowitz, added a contemporary note. He has traveled many times to the ruins of Jewish Europe and has many stories of Hashgocha Protis. Yes, he shared an anecdote as we reluctantly closed our Gemaros. “We were visiting a remote cemetery in Europe when a woman spotted us and began screaming, ‘Today is my father’s 80th yahrtzeit and there is no one to say Kaddish and no minyan. Now you arrive with ten Jewish men. Could you please help?’ Of course, we said Tehillim, a Kaddish and a Keil Molei.” Reb Dovid continued that they proceeded to read the words on the matzeivah to ascertain what zechus this man must have had. After the dust of time was blown away, the words appeared: “nosan milachmo el dal.” He apparently would give away his own bread to those less fortunate. Paid in full.
In truth, the earliest and most poignant of all these stories must be considered the saga of the Maharam M’Ruttenberg, whose story was famously written for the child in us all by Rav Meir Lehmann under the title The Unpaid Ransom. The great Rishon and author of thousands of important teshuvos had been thrown into a horrific prison on trumped-up charges. His many admirers wanted to redeem him according to the mitzvah of pidyon shvuyim, but the Maharam refused to allow it. He ordered them to desist based upon the edict that captives may not be redeemed for exorbitant ransom, because it will encourage many more such kidnappings and wrongful imprisonments. And so the Maharam perished in captivity after many years of suffering.
After many years of his holy body languishing in the tower, a wealthy man decided that the situation could continue no longer. He advanced a great deal of money and effort and personally attended to the burial. The Maharam was finally interred properly with the respect due to one of the giants of the Rishonim. To everyone’s shock, the next day, the wealthy man passed away as well. After a few days had passed, the wealthy man appeared to one of his friends in a dream, explaining what had actually occurred. The night after the Maharam’s burial, he, too, appeared in a dream, but to his benefactor and savior. “Thank you so much,” the Maharam gratefully told his loyal askan. “In recognition for your great mesirus nefesh for me, I would like to give you a gift. However, you must make a choice. Either you will become fabulously wealthy, which will remain with your family until the end of days, or you must pass away immediately and you will be assured a place in the World To Come.” The righteous man concluded, “I chose Olam Haba and therefore had to depart this world the very next day.” When his friend asked in the dream for his exact situation in the next world, he responded, “I am close to the Maharam in Gan Eden.”
Now, we can only imagine that when the wealthy man passed away, there were murmurings. “Is this the reward for someone who performs such an amazing good deed?” However, although we don’t always understand, we must know and believe that Hashem never, ever, withholds a reward. Ironically, we find in Chazal this concept coupled with the promise as well regarding one particular creature. The posuk (Shemos 22:30) tells us that we should throw meat which turned out to be treif to the dogs. The Mechilta there cites the same words of Chazal we learned from the Gemara above that we must feed the dog as a reward for his silence in Egypt during Yetzias Mitzrayim. However, the Yerushalmi (Terumos 8:3) also tells us that a certain renegade butcher used to sell treife meat to unassuming Jews, and he once drank wine Friday night, falling off his roof, whereupon the dogs licked his blood. As Rav Yechiel Michel Stern (Medrash Halacha, Parshas Mishpatim) quoted from the Meiri, “the dog is known to recognize his master. Here the human being is considered worse than a dog, because he tragically does not.
We must end this study with an incredible story with the Chazon Ish (told by Rav Moshe Mordechai Shulsinger in Peninei Rabbeinu Hakehilas Yaakov, Pe’er Hador and Chochmas Koheles 2:106). The main protagonist of this story told it himself in 5722 (1962), 8 years after the petirah of the Chazon Ish: “When I was 17 years old, I left my parents’ home in Hungary to work in a business, where I tried to hide my Judaism from the Nazis. However, they caught up with me in 1942 and sent me to Auschwitz, where I was miraculously saved. Nevertheless, I was sent to Theresienstadt, where I was liberated in 1945. I stayed in Czechoslovakia until 1948, when I moved to Eretz Yisrael. My parents had been killed and I severed all connections to my past and my religion, working every Shabbos, Rosh Hashanah, and even Yom Kippur.
“On the eve of Yom Kippur 5713 (1953), I went to work as usual, but when I arrived home, my father, Reb Chaim Mordechai, appeared to me in a dream in a white kittel and tallis, warning that I must teshuvah or die shortly. On Friday night, I went to a coffee shop and he appeared to me again, lamenting, ‘Oy, you are still sinning.’ That night I didn’t smoke or turn on the radio. In the morning, I went to work, where I was a manager. I handed over all of my work to various people and headed to Bnei Brak, where I heard there was tzaddik who helps people.
“The minute I walked in, the Chazon Ish began speaking harshly to me. ‘Why have you been machallel Shabbos, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? Your father has no rest in the Upper World and you have been sentenced to kareis.’ The Chazon Ish seemed to fall asleep, but then he lifted his head and said to me, ‘In the zechus of a great mitzvah you performed, you have been given a heavenly pardon and will live more years. However, you must mend your ways and return to the derech with which your father brought you up. Do you remember what mitzvah you did?’
“I couldn’t recall at first and tried different things, but the tzaddik rejected them. Then I remembered. When I was 14 years old, my father sent me to bring a child who died to burial in a Jewish cemetery. It was extremely dangerous and frightening, but I did it.
“The Chazon Ish smiled at me and said, ‘That was it.’”
When the Steipler Gaon heard the story, he confirmed that it was well known that the souls of the deceased often visited the Chazon Ish. We may not know why Ben Zaza’s mother merited a eulogy from Rabbon Gamliel. But we do know that nothing we do escapes Hashem. More importantly, He always pays up His debts.
Let us seize every opportunity to perform chesed and other mitzvos, for we never know when He will choose to save us in their merit.