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Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Confronting the naysayers

Daf Yomi Sanhedrin 93

Nebuchadnezzar, the infamous Babylonian king, had destroyed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and exiled the Jewish people from our homeland.  But the damage was not yet complete.  Unsatisfied with how long it was taking them to become habituated to the local culture, the wicked ruler constructed a massive statue and ordered everyone to prostrate themselves before it.  Three young men, Chanania, Mishael, and Azaria refused to bow down and were thrown into a fiery furnace.  Miraculously, however, they emerged from the furnace, without as much as a singed garment!  In fact, before ordering their release, Nebuchadnezzar noticed a fourth individual – an angel – hanging out with them in the midst of the fire!

Rabbi Tanchum bar Chanilai taught: When Chanania, Mishael, and Azaria emerged from the fiery furnace, the nations of the world came along and slapped the Jews in the face, saying, “You have such a G-d, and you are bowing down to a statue?!”
Where did these great men (Chanania, Mishael, and Azaria) end up?  Rav says: They passed away on account of the evil eye.  Shmuel says: They drowned in saliva.  And Rabbi Yochanan says: They moved to Israel and got married, bearing sons and daughters.
And Daniel, where did he go?  Rav says: To dig a great river in Tiberius.  Shmuel says: To import aspasta seed.  And Rabbi Yochanan says: To import pigs from Alexandria, Egypt.

Following such an awesome miracle, you’d think that Chanania, Mishael, and Azaria would have become national heroes for the remainder of their lives!  Alas, not all stories have a happy ending.  Instead of honouring these courageous young men, the people began to show them disdain, heaping scorn upon them.  After all, it was embarrassing.  They’d succeeded in their religious commitments while nobody else was able to maintain their faith.

And so the Sages posit different approaches that the young men took.  Rav and Shmuel explain that they never really recovered from the aftershocks of the unfortunate episode.  According to Rav, they disappeared from public life.  Recognizing the way people looked at them, they chose to simply hide away and live out the remainder of their lives in solitude, as virtual hermits.  According to Shmuel, they didn’t hide from the world, but the scorn of their neighbours had a deleterious effect upon them.  They took the ill-feeling to heart and accepted their place as societal pariahs. 

Rabbi Yochanan is a little more optimistic.  He suggests that they understood that life would never be the same for them in Babylonia and chose to seize the moment and make aliya.  They began their lives anew, marrying and starting families.  His explanation also anticipates the discussion later in the Gemara regarding the ability of the youths to father children.  Case closed: in Rabbi Yochanan’s most positive scenario, it goes without saying that they were not physically maimed whatsoever by Nebuchadnezzar and went on to live happily ever after.

But then the Gemara goes a step further and contrasts their story with that of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar’s holy advisor.  He too lived in their era of spiritual depravity.  Nevertheless, according to the Sages, his response to the scorn of his less-devout brethren was remarkably different.  Instead of becoming downtrodden by the attitude of his fellow Jews, he decided to do something about the situation.

According to Rav, Daniel dug a great river in Tiberius.  In their explanation of the four elements, the Kabbalists explain that Tiberius is the world’s source of water.  Water symbolizes Torah.  In other words, Daniel realized how far the people had drifted from observance and began a major Torah teaching campaign.  According to Shmuel, Daniel wanted to demonstrate that they shouldn’t expect major improvements overnight.  Sometimes you need to sow the seeds today, only to reap the fruits many years later. 

Rabbi Yochanan says that Daniel sought to impress upon the people how drastically life could change for them k’heref ayin, in the blink of an eye.  When we were in Egypt, we were spiritually at the lowest of the low.  We were like pigs, so to speak.  But then the Almighty redeemed us, and before we knew it, we were standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai, receiving the Torah.  In fact, our Sages tell us that pigs are called chazir in Hebrew, which means ‘return,’ because when Moshiach comes, they will return to their original spiritual source and become kosher!  And so Daniel showed the people pigs that he brought in from Egypt, and begged them not to despair of redemption.

Sometimes in life, you do the right thing, only to find yourself ridiculed and scorned by all the people doing the wrong thing.  It’s tempting to retreat into our own little caves or to find ourselves drowning in all the negative attention.  Maybe we decide to leave town altogether to escape the nonsense around us.  If we can provide a more conducive spiritual atmosphere for our children, then that’s certainly an appropriate approach to take.

But if you can figure out, like Daniel did, how to capitalize upon the moment and create a teaching opportunity for those around you, then you’ve really faced up to the challenge of the hour!  Instead of ignoring or putting up with the naysayers, try turning the matter around and showing your critics the beauty of Torah and mitzvos!  Daniel noticed that oftentimes people feel so overwhelmed by the vicissitudes of the Exile that they cannot even begin to imagine life with a higher, more meaningful purpose.  It’s easy to interpret that attitude as disdain towards what you are doing, but chances are it’s more a case of a lack of awareness and understanding about living a heavenly life on earth. 

Don’t let the critics get you bogged down.  Don’t run away when they’re heaping their ridicule.  May you master the art of calmly and lovingly demonstrating the wonder of a living a purpose-filled life!