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Chapter 2: Mishna 7

Additionally, he (Hillel) saw a skull floating on the surface of the water. He said to it: Because you drowned [another] you were drowned. And the those who drowned you will, in the end, be drowned themselves.

What is the relevance of seeing the skull on the water? Would the lesson have been any different if he saw the skull on the ground!? If it is not dependent on being in the water (but the lesson would to apply to any person who was found dead, even on the ground) then how can we understand the case of the tongue of Chuzpith HaMeturgeman (Kiddusin 39b) which was dragged on the ground by a pig. Did he cause such a terrible thing to happen to someone else which made him deserving it happening to himself? And were the Ten Torah scholars that were killed by the Romans guilty of causing such deaths to others?

Hillel didn't literally see a skull floating on the water. Rather, he saw a person whose existence was "washed away," being uprooted from the world so completely that no trace of him remained. The use of the metaphors of the skull and the water represent these points. The head of the human being is his foundation, like the root of the tree, from which everything received its nourishment and sustenance. Water represents the process of washing something away.

Hillel saw a person whose foundation (represented by the skull) was washed away, with no trace of his existence remaining (which is what water can do). This never happens to righteous people, for even when they die they leave behind a legacy, and their deeds continue to have an impact. So it can never be said that they are "washed away," which implies that are obliterated from the world.

Hillel determined that this person was "washed away" because he himself had caused another person to be completely obliterated from the world. The process of water "washing away" something implies a successive process. Flowing water washes something away, and the original water is then itself washed away by other water which follows, and so on. We can therefore say that whatever effects the process of washing away is itself washed away.

Therefore, the Mishna describes a skull on the surface of the water, rather than on the ground, for this pattern of washing something away and then being washed away itself is unique to water. Seeing this person being obliterated completely, "washed away" convinced Hillel that it was due to his being a link in the continuing process of "washing away." Since he caused the complete obliteration of another (much more fundamental than "just" killing him) he was now being completely obliterated, as part of the process of which he was a part.

(A person bent on totally destroying another indicates his own failure to be connected to any form of stable existence. One may try to rid oneself of an enemy or a nuisance. And while it is not proper, it is understandable. The goal is that person should cease to cause problems. But one may go beyond that and look to completely destroy ones competition or opposition, even after they pose no more threat. This is what is meant by "washing away." It is what the Maharal calls "he'eder", which implies lack or deficiency. "He'eder" is the root of all sin and destruction, but is usually accompanied by some connection to continued existence. A person who can completely uproot another person to the point where there is nothing left of his memory or legacy, shows himself to lack any understanding of the interconnected nature of existence. He is therefore vulnerable to being completely obliterated himself.)

A question that remains to be asked is how the cycle began? What crime was committed by the first person who was "washed away" to make him deserving of this punishment? If there could have been some other sin that made him deserving of the punishment of being "washed away" (being obliterated from the face of the earth) then how could Hillel know that the person he saw was guilty of obliterating another? Maybe he was guilty of the other sin that brought with it this punishment?!

Clearly, the first person to be "washed away" was deserving of this because of some sin that he had committed, as happens to many evil people. But the person that Hillel saw, "a skull floating on the water," was so strongly and completely obliterated, more than would have occurred to the person who was simply guilty of a sin, that Hillel determined that such a level of destruction could only have come to him if he himself had done this to another. The level of obliteration that Hillel observed led to him to speak in second person, directing his statement towards the specific skull, rather than being made as a general lesson. "Because You -- the skull floating on the Water -- obliterated another, you yourself are now being obliterated to such an extreme degree."

There is another reason why Hillel assumed that the person he observed had caused the obliteration of another, even though another sin may have led to a similar punishment. We always assume the most likely explanation for an occurrence, even though we can never know for sure why something happens. This is seen in the Gemara (Berachoth 5a) which teaches us that when a person experiences suffering and difficulties, he should [first] examine his actions (to see if he is guilty of some sin). If he finds no sin to account the difficulties, then he should attribute them to his failure to sufficiently utilize his time for Torah study. Even though there is more than one possible explanation, we see that one should first consider the most likely source for an occurrence. In this case, sin is considered the most likely cause (although not the only one, as the continuation of the Gemara shows) for suffering and difficulties. Similarly, Hillel assumed the most likely explanation for what he observed, that the person had been responsible for "washing away" another person, even though there certainly had been some person who was washed away due to some other sin.

(This simple idea that the Maharal inserts in an almost off handed way -- that one should assume the most likely explanation for something, unless there is concrete evidence to the contrary -- is really quite profound and fundamental. When a person has no preconceptions as well as no vested interest in the outcome of something, he will always assume the most likely explanation, unless there is strong evidence to the contrary. It is when a person is resistant to the conclusions that are being reached that he begins "grasping at straws," inventing convoluted explanations, and avoiding the simple approach. This is true on a psychological level, when dealing with people who have bad habits, addictions or behavioral disorders. And it is true on an ideological/philosophical level. In order to avoid the most likely explanation of the complexity and profundity of the universe, nature or the human being, a person creates all kinds of alternative explanations to the source of creation. While any one of these explanations may be possible, each one is far less likely than the straightforward one that the world has an infinite Creator. Similarly, the sweep of Jewish history, the fulfillment of Biblical prophecies, and the continuity of authentic Torah Judaism through every challenge and obstacle, can all be explained as coincidence or with "after the fact" sociology. But one wonders why there is such an aversion to the most likely explanation, which is the one that Judaism has promoted from the beginning of its existence: A Divinely revealed Torah given to a nation chosen by G-d and having an assigned destiny. Food for thought.)

The class is taught by Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky, Dean of Darche Noam Institutions, Yeshivat Darche Noam/Shapell's and Midreshet Rachel for Women.



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