Dealing with Beneficence

Taanit (3:4) | Noam Greenberger | 15 years ago

The fourth Mishnah in the third perek of Masechet Taanit teaches: “We cry out over any calamity that may befall the community except for excessive rain.”

To begin with we must define the phrase “excessive rain.” As Rashi explains ( 8b), the Mishnah is not talking about troublesome rain, rather bothersome rain. We are not referring to rain which is detrimental to society, rather that which is simply unneeded. Nonetheless, the Mishnah begs the question of why we should not pray for the stoppage of rain which is simply unnecessary and even to some degree inconvenient for us?

The Gemara (22b) asks this very question. The response offered is: “Rav Yochanan said: for we do not pray for the stoppage of excessive goodness.” The Gemara then asks for the source for this principle and is informed:

As Scripture states - “Bring all the tithes into the storage house, and let it be sustenance in My Temple. Test Me, if you will, with this, says Hashem, Master of Legions, [see] if I do not open up for you the windows of the heavens and pour out upon you blessing without end.” (Malachi 3:10, Trans. Artscroll). And what is the meaning of “without end”? Rami the son of Rav said- until one’s lips will be worn out from saying “Enough!”

Nonetheless, one may still justifiably ask why it is that we should not petition the stoppage of excessive Divine goodness. Fundamentally this question is mandated because although the Gemara provided a source for the idea that Hashem may over-reward us, no mention was made in the pasuk of the undesirability of requesting of Hashem to cease this path of action.

The Meiri and the Rambam provide one course in answer to this question. The Meiri (a French, later-medieval commentator on the Talmud) writes that petition for the stoppage of rain is deterred because essentially rain is a beneficial phenomenon. The rationale behind the Meiri’s approach would seem to be that although at his point in time the rain may be unneeded, it is nonetheless, in general, a good thing and therefore its granting by Hashem must be related to suitably.

The Rambam takes a similar line. In his Mishnah Torah (Hilchot Taaniyot ) he writes that: “We do not fast in order that the good [i.e. abundance of rain] pass.” Inherent in the Rambam’s line of thinking is the need for broad perspective and historical awareness. In his view, we may not request the cessation of Divine gifts because it shows an inability to appreciate the current circumstances with respect to the true calamities that may befall mankind. Such petition would highlight a complete lack of sensitivity for the history of humanity and the natural travails that have ravaged it. Could an unpleasant abundance of rain be compared to a drought or a flood? In both the Rambam’s and the Meiri’s eyes we do not pray for the stoppage of Divine kindness because this would be indicative of a gross misapprehension of the situation.

Another rationale is presented by the Ran (an acronym for Rabbeinu Nissim). A medieval commentator on the Talmud, the Ran interprets the issue as one of emotional sensitivity. In his commentary ( 8b) he writes:

Since it is the way of Hashem in responding to His people Israel to affect them through His goodness until their lips wear out from saying “Enough!” we do not pray against this.

The picture drawn by the Ran is that to pray for the cessation of Divine goodness would be insensitive (for lack of a better word) to Him. To simply view the Divine outpouring of beneficence from our utilitarian standpoint and thus to seek to restrain it indicates an inability to view Hashem’s gifts not merely as a present for mankind but as an expression of His loving kindness irrespective of its functional purpose and/or pragmatic significance. Thus, argues the Ran, it would be disrespectful of us to petition the stoppage of Divine abundance.

The issue brought up by the Ran carries with it wide ramifications. In his analysis lies an insight regarding human interpersonal relations. The Gemara in Masechet Brachot (10b) discusses the diverse approaches of the prophets Elisha and Shmuel with regard to the acceptance of human beneficence. The Gemara states:

Said Abaye (some say it was Rav Yitzchak) - One who wishes to benefit [from the kindness of others] may do so in the spirit of Elisha and one who wishes not to benefit may do so in the spirit of Shmuel.

I understand from this Gemara that there may be situations in which accepting the beneficence bestowed upon one is not only valid as a course of action designed to benefit oneself but is in fact valid because it provides the giver with a receptacle and an outlet for the bestowal of goodness. In this regard there may be occasions in which the acceptance of beneficence is not a self-absorbed act but rather an altruistic and empathetic form of behaviour in that it recognises the human need to give.

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