Monday, February 1, 2010

Choni HaMe'agel. Your questions answered

A number of people have asked me questions regarding my last post about the story of Choni HaMe'agel.

I only quoted the middle bit of the story so this is the full story:

Taanis 23a/b

Choni HaMe'agel was always bothered by the pasuk in Tehillim 126 that reads "A song of going up. When Hashem will return the captivity of Zion we will be like dreamers". One day he was walking along the road when he came across a man planting a carob tree…

(Read this part of the story in previous post)

…After speaking to the man's grandson and realising that he (Choni) had in fact slept for 70 years, he goes home only to find that his son has already died and that his grandson is living in the house. He announces to them that he is Choni HaMe'agel, back after disappearing for 70 years. They do not believe him and send him away. He walks to the Beis Midrash where he hears the Rabbanim teaching a halacha in the name of Choni HaMe'agel! He announces that he is Choni HaMe'agel but they assume he is a deranged person and throw him out the Beis Midrash. Alone and rejected he asks Hashem to take his life like the folk saying. "Give me companionship (from family and friends) or give me death".

There were two basic questions on this story:

1. Choni HaMe'agel dies of a broken heart, rejected by his family as well as those in the Beis Midrash. This does not seem appropriate considering he was a tzaddik?

2. The story regarding Choni HaMe'agel begins by Choni being troubled by the pasuk in Tehillim 126. He wonders what the term "like dreamers" means in this context. Somehow the story of the man planting a carob tree is supposed to answer this question but it is unclear how.

(The following perush is based on the Artscroll Tanach Series Tehillim Volume II. Page 1536)

Let's start by answering Choni's question on a pshat level. What does "we were like dreamers" mean?

The Seforno writes that when Zion (Am Yisrael) return to Eretz Yisrael from Babel after 70 years, the splendour and excitement of the occasion will seem like an impossible dream.

The Malbim writes that all through the bitter exile of Babel, the Jewish people never stopped dreaming of the return to their homeland – Eretz Yisrael. Am Yisrael had perfect faith in the "dreams", that is the nevuos (the prophetic visions) that the nevi'im (prophets) received, that we would return to Eretz Yisrael after 70 years.

The Radak (which seems to be the accepted pshat as I've seen this quoted most often), writes that when Zion (Am Yisrael) returns home to Eretz Yisrael, the memory of the harsh living in Chutz LaAretz, that is Babel, will seem like a bad dream.

Others interpret the Radak as saying that true reality only exists in Eretz Yisrael. Living as a Jew outside of our home land is like a bad dream that actually feels at the time so real and normal. However, in the morning we awake and immediately realise with shock just how abnormal the dream really was.

The Maharsha sees the story of Choni as a mashal for this point. Choni realises that his dreaming for 70 years while the carob tree continued to grow is a mashal for Am Yisrael surviving in Babel for 70 years. It is as if the Jewish people were kept in suspended animation whilst outside Eretz Yisrael.

Just as it is a supernatural event that he slept for 70 years and then woke up, so it was a ness (miracle) that Am Yisrael survived in Babel, torn from its routes.

Carob in Hebrew is Charov חרוב. The word comes from the shoresh (or route) charav  חרב which means lifeless. The Carob tree appears to be lifeless for 70 years, existing but not bearing fruit. Then suddenly after so long, it produces beautiful honey tasting carobs. This is a mashal for Am Yisrael in Babel.

Choni awakes after 70 years. He has been away from his home all this time sleeping, just as Am Yisrael has been in Babel sleeping for 70 years.

Both his family and the Beis Midrash honour and venerate the memory of Choni HaMe'agel, their Tzaddik grandfather and Rebbi yet they find it impossible to relate to the man himself in the flesh. Although Choni was given the privilege of seeing the carob tree bare fruit, his grownup grandson and his Torah being taught in the Beis Midrash, he realises that he really shouldn't be there. Just as Moshe Rabeinu was not allowed into Eretz Yisrael because he was the wrong type of leader for Am Yisrael living in Eretz Yisrael. So too Choni's Torah straight from Choni's mouth would not have been appropriate in that generation. Hakodesh Baruch Hu therefore takes his neshama to Olam Haba.

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