Blog Post

Faith in the Face of Adveristy

Dear friends,

In the Talmud we read about Nahum Ish Gamzu and his disciple Rabbi Akiba who were men of endless faith in G-D Almighty. They were certain that anything that happened in their life was good. They understood that nothing happens by accident or chance; that nothing happens without G-d knowing it. Simply stated, G-d is good, therefore, how can anything bad happen?

Of course, unpleasant things sometimes do happen, but that does not mean they are bad. Medicine may be quite bitter to swallow; but who would say that medicine is bad because it is unpleasant?

Each one of them expressed his faith in a different way. Nahum used to say, “Gam zu l’tovah,” which in Hebrew means: “This is also for good.” In fact, it is believed that because he often repeated this saying, he was called “Gamzu.”

Rabbi Akiba on the other hand used to say, “Kol man d’avid Rachmana l’tav avid,” which in Aramaic (the language most widely spoken by the Jewish people at that time, for Hebrew was spoken by the scholars) meant: “All that the Merciful One does, He does for good.”

The Talmud relates a story about each of these two sages, that exemplify this deep endless faith in the Almighty.

Nahum Ish Gamzu.

Rabbi Nahum was once sent to Rome to try to persuade the Roman Emperor to be more kindly towards the Jews. He was carrying a precious box, filled with gold and diamonds, to present to the Emperor on behalf of the Jews. Along the journey, he stopped at an inn and slept over the night. On the following morning he continued his journey, not knowing that the innkeeper had stolen the precious things from the box and filled it with sand and soil.

When Rabbi Nahum finally reached Rome and presented himself to the Emperor, he handed the box to the Emperor. Upon opening the box, it was found to contain nothing but sand and soil. The Emperor was filled with anger, thinking that the Jews were mocking him. Nahum was thrown into prison and certain death awaited him. However, Nahum was not dismayed and said, as Usual, “Gam zu l’tovah” – “this is also for good.”

At his trial, one of the Emperor’s advisers said that the Jews would certainly not have dared to mock the Emperor. He suggested, therefore, that perhaps this was no ordinary sand and soil. He had heard, the adviser said, that when Abraham, the first Jew, went to battle against Chedarlaomer and his confederate kings, he threw sand and soil at them, which G-d turned into arrows and deadly weapons which in turn made Abraham victorious in the battle against the mighty kings. Maybe this sand and soil were of the same kind!
The Emperor had been at war for some time now, and was unable to defeat his enemy. So he ordered this sand and soil to be used. Indeed, the miracle repeated itself, and the enemy was defeated!

Nahum was immediately freed from prison and given many gifts and the petition of the Jews was granted. Rabbi Akiba’s story.

Rabbi Akiba had a slightly different narrow escape from death. He was traveling through the countryside on his way to the city when the sun began to set, and he had to take shelter in the woods. It was a dark night, so he lit the only candle he had. He also had a rooster with him to wake him early in the morning, and a donkey on which he rode. Suddenly a strong wind blew out his candle and he remained in darkness. Moments later the rooster was snatched by an animal of prey and a similar fate befell the donkey. As each of his travel companions disappeared as his night turned into a nightmare , Rabbi Akiba would proclaim, “All that the Merciful One does is for good.”

The next morning, Rabbi Akiba arrived in the city where he learned that a band of vicious thieves, had passed through the forest the previous night and attacked the city. Had they been aware of Rabbi Akiba’s presence he would have suffered a terrible fate at their hands! In 20/20 hindsight the blown out candle, the silence of the now non existent rooster and donkey was a life saver.

Let us take a moment to understand why different expressions were employed by Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Nahum to express what is seemingly a very similar sentiment. After all Rabbi Akiba was Rabbi Nahum’s disciple, one would expect a disciple to repeat his master’s teachings in the master’s own words. Rabbi Akiba chose to express himself in Aramaic while Rabbi Nahum did so in Hebrew, why?

Before we can answer these questions, we must first get a better understanding of the meaning of “good” and “evil.”

G-d is good. He is not the source of evil. Everything that happens in this world should therefore be good, and, indeed, originally, in its rawest form in its source as it comes from G-d, everything is good. However, by the time it actually takes shape down in this lowly physical world, what was in its source something good can translate in our world to something negative. For example: A loving father gives his son a toy to play with. That’s certainly a good thing. But then the son gets hurt by the improper use of it. That’s bad, it was never the father’s intention for the son to get hurt, the father’s intention was for his son to enjoy the toy.

Then there is, as we mentioned earlier the case of the unpleasant medicine. A child, will yell and scream, that he doesn’t want to take it. But when he takes it, willingly or not, it is unpleasant for a moment but drives pain away for a long time.

So it is in life. There are two kinds of “evil”: a) A temporary setback which soon proves to be a blessing in disguise (like medicine). b) A more serious “evil,” such as sickness or even death, which seems to have no good at all in it but which, nevertheless, we believe to be for a good purpose known only to G-d.

We who believe in One G-d, the One Creator, who created both heaven and earth, light and darkness, heat and cold, and everything that exists, believe that the Creator of the whole world is purely good, and no evil can come from Him.

When one’s faith in this is as strong as that of Rabbi Nahum, and one’s piety as great too, one may be given the power to influence events in this world so that the good that originates from G-d be seen and felt down here below, as it was intended Above. Thus Rabbi Nahum was able, in his great and boundless faith, to convert the very sand and soil into good, even to something better than the gold and precious things that had been stolen and replaced by the seemingly worthless sand and soil.

Rabbi Akiba lived in the next generation after Rabbi Nahum. The world was not the same in Rabbi Akiba’s time, as in the time of his master. The people were not up to the same standard of holiness and piety and were not worthy of the same revelation of G-d’s light and of the same miracles. So, although Rabbi Akiba’s faith was as strong as that of Rabbi Nahum, the miracles that his faith called forth were more veiled, more hidden. The event itself did not show the good but it merely proved to be an indirect cause of it. At the same time, the “harm” suffered was very small compared to the good that came from it. This was the case with Rabbi Akiba that night when he was in the woods.

This can explain the difference in the expressions used by Rabbi Nahum and Rabbi Akiba. Rabbi Nahum said, “This is also for good,” meaning that the event itself is good. Whereas Rabbi Akiba said, “All that G-d does He does for good,” meaning that while the experience itself is unpleasant, it surely leads to good.
Now we can also understand the difference in the language used by the two Sages. For, as already mentioned, Hebrew was the language of the scholars in those days, whilst most people spoke the Aramaic dialect.

Rabbi Nahum’s way of life was, obviously, of a very high order, and very few people enjoyed such powers to convert the very evil into good. That is why his way of life is expressed in Hebrew, the language which was not used commonly but rather by way of exception. Rabbi Akiba’s way of life, on the other hand, could be followed by wider sections of the people. Therefore, he expressed it in Aramaic, so that everybody can understand and try to follow his example.

In the course of ones life there are many events that seem like setbacks, there are many challenges that seem insurmountable. Sharply painful events can transpire, when we feel as if, this is it, there is no way forward our world will forever be dark and cold. During times such as these we often search for temporary relief, we seek anything that can help us numb the pain and escape what we perceive to be an impossible reality. During such times, we can take inspiration from the lives of the sages who were up against impossible odds or at the very least, painfully difficult setbacks, and throughout it all were always cognisant of the fact that G-D directs the steps of man and “everything is good” or at the very least “whatever G-D does he does for good. If we can just tap into that simple yet profoundly deep faith we can perhaps transform that which seems so painful and difficult into a moment of growth and opportunity.

Shabbat Shalom

— Rabbi Meir Kessler