the donkey, the candle and the rooster
In case you missed tonight’s story and discussion on Ki Tavo:
There once was a rabbi named Akiva. He was known for being an excellent student of Torah and an optimistic guy. Whenever anything unpleasant happened, he would always say, “Gam zeh l’tovah,” meaning “this too is for a good reason.” One day Rabbi Akiva set out on a journey with only the most basic travel essentials—no, not the tiny tube of toothpaste or travel-sized deodorant that we bring on trips today. All he brought was a donkey, a candle, and a rooster. The donkey was his main form of transportation, the candle was so he could study Torah late into the night, and the rooster was to wake him up in the morning.
After a long day of traveling, Rabbi Akiva arrived at a gated city. He went deep into the city and inquired at every inn about vacancies. (This was before you could make advanced hotel reservations online.) Everyone sent him away, and Akiva had no option except to sleep in a field outside of the city. As he walked out to the field, he said to himself, “Gam zeh l’tovah – this too is for a good reason.”
Shortly before sunset, Akiva made himself a pillow out of wild grass and found rocks to light his candle. It wasn’t easy to light the candle, but he managed to do everything he needed before nightfall. He lit the candle, tied his donkey to a tree, gave some grain to the rooster, and even reviewed the Torah lesson he had learned earlier that week before nodding off.
Shortly after falling asleep, he awoke to a horrifying sound. Akiva lifted up his candle and saw that a lion had come and attacked his donkey. The poor donkey didn’t stand a chance, and quickly became a midnight snack for the lion. Akiva laid perfectly still and quietly thanked God that he was still alive. He could have been a second midnight snack for the lion, but he was safe. “Gam zeh l’tovah,” he said, “This too is for a good reason.”
After watching the lion leave, Akiva fell back asleep and was woken again to a strange rustling sound. A weasel had now come for his rooster. Akiva tried to protect his rooster, but the weasel was too quick for him to catch. Now Akiva had no rooster. But he still had hope. “Gam zeh l’tovah,” he said, “This too is for a good reason.”
Just then a howling wind started to blow. Of course, it extinguished the candle that Akiva had worked so hard to light. Everything he had worked for was gone, but Akiva still said, “Gam zeh l’tovah” before falling back asleep in the dark and lonely field.
When Akiva woke up the next morning, he smelled smoke. He looked over at where the city gates were yesterday and saw charred stones and piles of ashes. Robbers had come in the middle of the night, raided, pillaged, and enslaved the inhabitants before burning the city down. If Akiva had been in the city that night, he could have been killed or enslaved. If his candle had been lit, or his animals had been making noise in the field, the robbers might have found him out there and made him a slave, too. Akiva was filled with awe as he said once again, “Gam zeh l’tovah. Indeed, every seeming misfortune was for a good reason.”
This week’s Torah portion ends with a series of blessings and curses. Rabbi Gunther Plaut, a prominent Reform Torah scholar, suggested that there is not a strong difference between these blessings and curses in the Torah. The curses are merely the inverse of the blessings, and vice versa.
In light of this interpretation and story, I have two questions for us to discuss:
- What do you think about the difference between blessings and curses? Are they merely the inverse of the other? Or is it a matter of perspective as in Akiva’s story? As in the same thing can seem like a blessing or a curse, depending on one’s perspective?
- If you were trying to encourage people to follow the rules of the Torah, would you include more blessings or more curses to motivate people? Do you think most people respond better to positive incentives or negative consequences? Why?