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The Systems of the Jewish Year

Avoiding Pitfalls

By Rabbi Sender Haber

The Gemara in 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 Chofer Boros. He would dig wells and donate them for public use. The rabbis praised Nechuniah for his actions, despite the danger that they potentially posed.

One day Nechuniah’s daughter fell into a pit that he had dug. The people ran to Rav Chanina ben Dosa and asked him to pray for her. “Don’t worry”, he said, “she’s fine”. An hour passes and the girl hadn’t been rescued so they came to Rav 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 Rav 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 mitzvos, but it does not. The Gemara is painfully honest. Rav 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 Hashem protects those who do mitzvos, but he is still very exacting in his judgement.

The commentaries struggle to reconcile the confidence of Rav 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 around the whole Yerushalayim. 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.

We are in a period of mourning for the students of Rabi Akiva. They were sages, scholars, and righteous men. Yet they were punished all the same.

We can never be complacent. There is always room to examine and to grow.

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