The Talmud (Bava Kammah 50a) speaks about digging pits. It is illegal to dig a pit and leave it uncovered and accessible. If there are any damages, the digger is liable. However, if the person digging the pit donates the pit to the public, he is free of all responsibility. This was the practice of “Nechuniah the Pit Digger,” a prominent citizen of Jerusalem in Mishnaic times. He would dig wells and donate them for public use. The rabbis praised Nechuniah for his actions, despite the danger that his pits potentially posed.
One day, Nechuniah’s daughter fell into a pit that he had dug. The people ran to Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa and asked him to pray for her. “Don’t worry,” he said, “she’s fine.” An hour passed and the young lady still hadn’t been rescued, so they came to Rabbi Chanina again. “Don’t worry,” he said, “she’s fine.” Another hour passed and again the people returned. “Don’t worry,” he said, “they just pulled her out.”
Indeed, the people raced back to the pit to find the girl safe and sound. She explained that an old man with a ram had come by and rescued her from the pit.
Terribly impressed by Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa, the people began to call him a prophet. “I’m not a prophet,” he corrected them, “it was just obvious to me that the girl would not be harmed by a pit that had been so generously and meticulously dug and donated by her father. How could the daughter come to suffer from a mitzvah that her father has done?”
The story could end here with a beautiful thought about the reward and protection that comes from fulfilling G-d’s commandments, but it does not. The Talmud is painfully honest. Rabbi Acha shares with us that although Nechuniah’s daughter was saved miraculously from a well, his son actually died of thirst. This is to teach us that G-d protects those who carry out His will, but he is still very exacting in his judgment.
The commentaries struggle to reconcile the confidence of Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa and the fate of Nechuniah’s son, but I think that the lesson here is very simple:
We hear and experience many wonderful stories about people who are saved as a direct result of their good deeds. We ourselves do many good deeds. Still, we do not have a license to sit back and relax. We need to constantly examine and re-examine our actions.
Nechuniah had dug wells throughout the entire city of Jerusalem. He had rabbinic endorsement and blessing. He even had a miracle to back him up. Still, he was not immune. Even as he was out digging wells, his own son died of thirst. Something went wrong.
The days between the holidays Pesach and Shavuos are days in which we remember the students of Rabbi Akiva. These 24,000 students spanned the entire northern Israel and enlightened a generation with their scholarship. They perished in a terrible plague because they did not have enough respect for one another. Their teacher Rabbi Akiva drove the message home for future generations: “V’ahavta L’reiachah Kamocha” – The commandment that we must love our fellow as we love ourselves is a central teaching of the Torah. We dare not forget it.
The students of Rabbi Akiva were sages, scholars, and righteous men. Yet they were punished all the same.
Of course, we never really know why G-d causes certain people to suffer. We certainly should not dare to judge others and claim to know the reason for their suffering. Still, the point remains. We can never be complacent. There is always room to examine and to grow.
—Rabbi Sender Haber, B’nai Israel Congregation