There are many lessons one can learn from the famous story of Choni Ha’magal however there is one very important teaching in particular which stands out in connection to this week’s parsha, Chayeh Sarah.
Firstly, what’s the story of Choni?
We all heard of “Rip Van Winkle”. It’s a fictional tale by the American author Washington Irving published in 1819. I guess one can consider the short story as part of classic American literature. As a matter of fact, there have been many similar stories in history from other countries and cultures. I guess there is something irresistible about taking long naps for an extended period that has the reader curious. However they’re all revised copies of the ancient Jewish story about Choni Ha’magal found in the Talmud (Ta’anit 23A).
Even popular kids cartoon characters like Fred Flintstone, Mr. Magoo, Bugs Bunny and many others all had their episodes of falling into a lengthy sleep, based on the story of Rip Van Winkle, or more accurately, Choni Ha’magal. That’s how popular the story is. Reading the passage in the Gemara for the first time one can not help but to think of times of youth and having seen a similar script by Hanna Barbara Productions or throughout Loony tunes.
A Little Background
Choni Ha’magal (the circle-maker) was given this nickname due to another incident in his life, in which he pleaded with God to bring rain. He drew a circle around his feet and exclaimed that he was not going to leave the circle until G-d brought rain. It rained! Clearly, Choni was a great scholar.
The prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 29:10) promised, “The Lord says, ‘After seventy years for Babylon have been completed, I will remember you, and I will fulfill for you, My favorite, a promise to return you to this place.’ ” The Babylonian exile lasted for seventy years, during which time the Jewish people were living in a foreign land and were subservient to their hosts.
Text 1 – Babylonian Talmud Ta’anit 23b
His whole life he pondered the verse, (Psalms 126:1)
“A song of ascent, when God returns us to Zion, we were like dreamers.”
Can someone sleep for seventy years?
One day he (Choni) was walking along the road when he came across a man who was planting a carob tree. He asked him, “These Carob trees, how long does it take them to producefruit?””Seventy years,” replied the man.
“Are you so certain that you are going to live for another seventy years?”
“I found this world with carob trees growing in it; in the same way that my
ancestors planted for me, so will I plant for my children.”
Choni fell asleep, and slept for seventy years. When he woke up he saw a man gathering carobs from the tree. “Are you the man who planted this tree? he (Choni) asked.
“I am his grandson.” “I must have slept for seventy years,” said Choni to himself. He saw that his donkey had given birth to a whole herd of donkeys. Choni went to his house. “Is Choni’s son here?” he asked. “His son is no longer alive, but his grandson is here,” they replied to him. “I am Choni Ha’magal” he told them. They did not believe him.
He went to the Beit Midrash (study hall) and he heard the Rabbis say, “Things are so clear today, like in the days of Choni Ha’magal, that every question that the Rabbis had, he knew the answer to it.”
“I am he,” said Choni. The Rabbis did not believe him and they did not respect him even though his knowledge of Torah was great. He said if I don’t have a companion in expressing myself, it’s not worth to live.
He was weakened and he asked God to have mercy on him, and he died.
There are many questions on this Gemara however let’s focus on Choni’s mental well being throughout the whole episode.
Choni was transported to the future. He was not recognized but he was remembered, fondly, as a historical figure. Everybody immediately recognized the name Choni and revered it. However, they did not connect nor believe that the man in front of them was in fact Choni. This happened both in his home and in the study hall.
We see from here that Choni had a past (people knew his name) and he had a future (he had grandchildren and his name lived on in his scholarly teachings), however – he had no present! He could not connect; he could not adapt to the present in which he was placed.
The adapting mechanism in him did not work and it led to his demise.
Why didn’t it work?
Many of these aspects are comparisons about life. Perhaps one should put this also on the list:
One can compare life to sitting in a moving vehicle as he sees the places, neighborhoods and people pass him by. He remembers where he began and he knows his destination. The mind registers and adapts to the journey as he gets closer and closer to the end.
In life, one must learn to adapt to a situation, whether it be work, school, marriage, birth, death, diet, or any relationships with others or one’s self. No matter how harsh living conditions may be, no matter how difficult the environment, no matter how irritating or obnoxious the person, a human being is able to adapt and survive. But, we shall shortly learn from the teaching of Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, that there is an important ingredient, which should be infused in the process of adapting, in order for it to be successful.
I t is this message, which will clarify for us the difference between Abraham’s reaction to G-d’s command to bring his son Yitzchak as a sacrifice, as opposed to that of his wife Sarah. Abraham was eager to fulfill G-d’s command. Sarah, on the other hand, when she heard what had transpired, could not bear the news, and died instantly. How can two great people have reacted so differently to the same event? What makes this question even more puzzling, was that Sarah was on a higher level then her husband in prophecy.
The answer is that Abraham was made aware in a gradual manner that Yitzchak was to be brought as a sacrifice, thus allowing his feelings and emotions to adapt to the challenge awaiting him. G-d told him ‘Take your son’ then ‘your only son whom you love’. Only then did he inform him that Yitzchak was to be sacrificed. So maybe, if Abraham had been confronted suddenly that it was Yitzchak who was to be sacrificed, he would not have survived. It was the gradual realization of this fact that made it easier for him to digest this. He was therefore able to perform G-d’s command. Such was not the case with Sarah who was suddenly overwhelmed by the realization of what had happened and died from the shock.
Another example of how delicate and gradual one must be, is G-d’s reaction after Adam sinned by eating from the tree of knowledge. G-d appeared close to Adam and asked ‘Where are you?’ G-d knew where Adam was, but He wanted to confront him in a manner that he would not be startled. The guilt of his sin was overwhelming; any sudden confrontation would have emotionally destroyed Adam.
Let’s not forget Serach bat Asher, the granddaughter of our father Yaacov, who played the harp singing ‘Yosef (his favorite son who was presumed dead for 22 years) is still alive and living in Egypt’. The overwhelming sudden joy would have been proven too much and might have killed him. Serach presented it in a delicate, clever, gradual way in which Yaacov was able to comprehend without the shocking affect.
The Gemarah (Sotah13a) states that soon after Yaacov’s death, seventeen years later, when Yaacov’s sons were taking his body to the Cave of Machpela for burial, a confrontation took place between his sons and his evil brother Eisav. Eisav came and protested that the plot of land (Cave of Machpela) belonged to him. A debate ensued and it was decided that one of the brothers would return to Egypt and retrieve the deed to show that Yaacov indeed owned the property.
A deaf grandson Chushim (son of Naftali) wondered, why the cause of the delay? When they communicated with him, he exclaimed ‘What? Our grandfather will lie in degradation until the deed is brought?’ whereupon he immediately killed Eisav.
Why was Chushim, a grandson, more concerned about Yaacov’s honor than Yaacov’s own sons? Rav Chaim answers, all the brothers had been slowly drawn into the argument with Eisav, gradually dulling their sensitivity to their father’s shame. Chushim, being deaf, was completely unaware of the situation. When he realized the reason for the delay, he could not contain his anger and killed Eisav.
At times, yours truly likes to compare the different periods of my life. I was in the front porch of my house, one Sunday afternoon and saw my neighbors and their kids playing with mine. I couldn’t help but to compare the cast of characters in my life now and when I was a child or as a teenager. For the most part, with a few exceptions I’m surrounded with new people. Some are not with us anymore and others are scattered all over the world. If I didn’t have the transitional memories in between the two times of my life, I would feel as if those periods in my life never occurred.
I once spoke to my cousin in Israel on the phone as I was walking in my current neighborhood in Queens. I had very little contact with this cousin since childhood but for a brief couple of seconds, listening to his voice, I thought I was back in Israel on my summer vacations as a child. The transformation was exhilarating!!
One has to be aware of the delicate nature of man. He has to approach situations gradually. Furthermore, man must be aware and use his most powerful tool, that of speech, properly by delivering news, whether good or bad, gradually. This will allow those listening to be able to hear and giving them a chance to adapt and tolerate what they are being told..
Even when one gets up in the morning, one needs time before getting out of bed. Even the Sages agree. There was a study taken where the body and mind need about 12 seconds to adapt. It’s funny that the prayer that is said in the morning, MODEH ANI, has 12 words. One second for each word, using the proper concentration, gives the mind and body time to adapt from a state of sleeping and lying down to one of being awake and standing/moving.
Choni was placed in a situation where he could not adapt. He could not relate to his new surroundings. Perhaps the seventy years lapse was too taxing on his mental state.
It’s inevitable that we will go through changes in life. People will come in to our lives and others will depart. Change has to be done gradually.
When King Shaul was informed by the Prophet Shmuel that G-d is removing him from being king, his response to Shmuel was a bit peculiar. He said “Let me address the people one more time as king”. He wanted to digest the verdict of G-d gradually and descend from the position.
We must deal with change in a delicate way. Granted, adapting is part of life. If we are aware of its pitfalls, allowing ourselves the time and effort to adapt, we will be at a tremendous advantage.