Are the above concepts merely theories, or can we actually apply them to our lives? How can we come to terms with all the unpleasant things that happen, particularly if they are very painful, and they hurt. How can we say that everything that happens - even these painful things - is good, because it comes from G-d?
The Talmud tells us of two sages, Rabbi Akiva and his teacher, Nachum Ish Gamzu, whose conduct provides us with exemplary illustrations of how to resolve these questions. There was one phrase that Rabbi Akiva would continually repeat: "Kol mah d'oveid Rachmono, l'tov oveid." It means, "Everything that G-d does is for the good."
Nachum Ish Gamzu had a similar phrase. He would say, "Gam zu l'tovah," meaning "This is also for the good." In fact, he would repeat this phrase so often that people called him Nachum Ish Gamzu, meaning, Nachum, the Gamzu man - the man who always says gam zu l'tovah.
On the surface, it seems that they were both saying the same thing, just phrasing it in different words. But the truth is that the difference between them goes beyond semantics. Each had a different approach and a different level of perceiving how everything that happens comes from G-d and is good. The difference between them is reflected in the stories the Talmud tells us about each of these men, showing how their adages became translated into actual experience.
The Talmud tells us that once, while Rabbi Akiva was on a journey, he needed a place to spend the night. He knocked on the door of one of the homes in the town he was passing through, but the owner did not invite him in. He was not upset, for he realized, "Everything G-d does is for the good."
He knocked on another door, but again he was not offered hospitality. His reaction remained the same, "Everything G-d does is for the good." Even after he had gone from door to door and realized that no one in the town was going to accept him as a guest, he still said, "Everything G-d does is for the good."
He had no choice but to camp in a forest lying at the outskirts of the town. He was traveling with a donkey to carry his packages, a rooster to wake him up early, and a lamp with which he could study at night. Shortly after he encamped, a lion devoured his donkey, his rooster was killed by another predator, and a strong wind blew out his fire. After each of these events, Rabbi Akiva said, "Everything that happens is for the good."
And the Talmud continues, telling us that he was right. On the following morning, he discovered that during the night, a Roman legion had attacked this village and taken its people as captives. Had he been accepted as a guest in one of these homes, he too, would have been taken captive.
And if his donkey or rooster had been alive, their braying and crowing would have attracted the legionnaires' attention. Had his candle remained burning, they would have been able to see him in the forest. "Everything that happened was for the good."
The story of Nachum Ish Gamzu took place in the following setting: The Roman emperor had decreed a terrible decree against the Jews in Eretz Yisroel, and the Jews had sent Nachum Ish Gamzu as their representative to petition the emperor to annul the decree. They gave him a chest full of precious gems to present to the emperor as a gift in the hope of appeasing him.
On his way, Nachum Ish Gamzu stopped at an inn. The innkeeper realized that the Rabbi was carrying jewels in this chest. During the night, he and his family removed the gems and filled the chest with sand. When Nachum woke up in the morning and prepared to continue his journey, he realized the change in the chest's weight. Although he saw that the jewels had been stolen and exchanged for sand, he remained unfazed.
He said gam zu l'tovah, "this also is for the good," and continued to Rome. There he gained an audience with the emperor and presented him with the request of the Jewish people and their gift.
When the emperor opened the chest and saw the sand, he became enraged and ordered the Rabbi to be thrown into the dungeon. One of the king's advisors - actually, the Talmud teaches us, he was not really an advisor, but Elijah the Prophet in disguise - spoke up on the Rabbi's behalf.
"Do you think the Jews have lost their senses?" he asked the emperor. "They are coming to appease you and ask a favor. Why would they want to mock you? The Rabbi knows that he could be killed for bringing you sand.
"This cannot be ordinary sand. It must be something special. In the Jews' tradition, it says that their forefather Abraham used special sand to defeat his enemies. He fought against four strong kings. How was he able to vanquish them? He took sand and threw it into the air, and the sand turned into arrows and spears. Perhaps this is the same special sand."
The emperor was willing to experiment. The Romans were waging a war at that time, and they took the sand out to the battlefront. And the same miracle took place. They threw the sand in the air, and it became arrows and spears. Stunned and dismayed, the enemy was soon vanquished.
Needless to say, the emperor was very pleased with this news. He had Nachum Ish Gamzu taken out of the dungeon and thanked him for the wonderful gift that he had brought. He nullified the decree against the Jews, filled the chest that the Rabbi had brought with precious gems, and gave it to him as a present.
The two stories share a fundamental similarity. Both Rabbi Akiva and Nachum Ish Gamzu firmly believed that everything that happened was positive in nature. Even when confronted with adversity, they saw, in a very short period of time, that their belief was well-founded. Even the unfavorable circumstances in which they found themselves led to a positive outcome.
Nevertheless, if we look closely at these two stories, we can distinguish between the approaches of these two sages. Rabbi Akiva's statement, "Everything that G-d does is for the good," implies that since the situation is ordained by Divine Providence, G-d is behind it. Therefore, we can be sure that it will eventually lead to a favorable outcome.
In other words, the situation itself may be painful or unpleasant, but it will lead to a positive outcome. If we were to know the positive results from the outset, we would decide that it is worth enduring this negative experience for the sake of the positive experience. Rabbi Akiva taught that even when a person does not have such foreknowledge, he should have the faith that G-d is controlling his experience and should therefore accept everything with happiness.
To illustrate: Take a person undergoing a surgical operation: If a person who knows nothing about modern medicine would walk into the operating room, he would be terrified by the sight. A person is lying on a table with his hands and feet tied down. Someone with a mask on his face is standing over him with a knife in his hand, cutting away at his body.
It would not be surprising for such a person to scream "Murder!" But he would be screaming only because of his ignorance, because he does not see what the operation is leading to. He would respond differently if he knew that this is a process of healing which will improve the patient's health. Indeed, the patient is paying dearly for the surgery, and has waited weeks or even months for his turn to come.
What is the point of the analogy? Surgery is a painful experience; it is uncomfortable and unpleasant. But a person is willing to undergo such an experience because he believes the outcome will be so positive that it will have been worthwhile.
And this is the way Rabbi Akiva saw everything in life. He realized that everything comes from G-d. And so he believed that even the painful and negative experiences would eventually lead to something positive. These concepts were reflected in the story mentioned above. Rabbi Akiva confronted adversity. Yet, from the negative experience, good emerged. And indeed, the good was worth bearing the negative experiences which preceded it.
Nachum Ish Gamzu's approach was even deeper. He believed that since all situations were brought about by Divine Providence, not only would a situation that looked unfavorable eventually lead to a positive outcome, but that it was itself a positive event; "This is also for the good." To refer to the story mentioned previously, the exchange of gems for sand was a positive thing. Although at the time nobody realized that it was positive, Nachum Ish Gamzu had faith. And after a few days, everyone discovered how right he was.
The exchange worked far more effectively than anyone would have dreamed. Who knows whether the king would have been impressed by the precious gems and jewels? Precious stones would not have been anything new for him. The sand, by contrast, was definitely something that impressed the king and had a tremendous impact on him.
Why can't we, like Nachum Ish Gamzu, be happy in all situations? To put it bluntly, we are ignorant and unaware. We have not developed ourselves, and moreover, even the most developed person cannot have the same understanding as G-d. Therefore, we cannot always see or understand that a situation is good.
Let us take another example: a mother who is feeding her child. A person walking by the house might hear screaming and shouting; the child is hysterical. The passerby peeks in through the window and sees the mother standing next to the child. She has a spoonful of food and is trying to feed him.
What would you say? Is the mother doing something negative that will eventually lead to something positive, or is what she is doing positive now? We do not need any time to ponder the answer; indeed, the very question is hard to conceive. The mother is doing something very positive. She is contributing to the health, growth and development of her child.
Why is the child crying? Because he is an infant, and he does not understand that what his mother is doing is for his benefit. He just feels uncomfortable with this big spoon sticking in his mouth and food pouring all over the place. Because of his lack of awareness, even though his mother is doing something for his benefit, he cries loudly.
A child may be, after all, only about twenty or so years younger than his mother, and the difference between their levels of understanding is measurable. Nevertheless, the child can suffer from a lack of awareness that prevents him from understanding that what his mother is doing is good for him.
How much more so does this apply with regard to G-d, who is infinite? Indeed, when we are speaking about G-d, even the term "infinite" is not a sufficient description. Is it, therefore, any wonder that we cannot always understand what G-d is doing, why He is doing it, and that what He is doing is actually good? The difficulty, however, is merely a product of our limited understanding; in truth, everything that He does is good.
Since Divine Providence is controlling everything, a person should never see himself as a victim of circumstance. Whatever happens to him is ordained by G-d for a purpose, one that is ultimately for the person's own good. It is just that there are two kinds of good: goodness that is openly apparent, and goodness that is disguised and requires a frame of mind like that of Nachum Ish Gamzu or Rabbi Akiva to appreciate it.
We each encounter situations that are upsetting, and yet shortly afterwards we see that things work out for the best. How many times has it happened that a person missed his appointment, but because he missed the appointment, he was saved from a unfavorable investment, or was free to use his time differently and discovered a very positive opportunity.
- (Back to text) Berachos 60b.
- (Back to text) Taanis 21a. See also Likkutei Sichos, Vol. II, p. 393ff. which explains the contrasts between the paths of Divine service taught by these two Sages.