Rabbi Chanina Ben Tradion, Mordechai and Mesirat Nefesh

By Rabbi Dovid Markel


When one reads the story of Mordechai’s Mesirat Nefesh not to kneel before Haman, it is easy to see the parallel to the Talmud’s recount in regards to R. Chaninah ben Teradion.

The Talmud (Avoda Zara 18a) tells concerning his disregard for the Roman decree not to publically teach Torah:

“When R. Yossi ben Kisma was ill, R. Chanina ben Teradion went to visit him. He said to him: ‘My brother Chanina, don’t you know that it is Heaven that has ordained this [Roman] nation to reign? For she laid waste His House, burned His Temple, slew His pious ones and caused His best ones to perish, still is she firmly established! Yet, I have heard about you that you sit and occupy yourself with the Torah, publicly gather assemblies, and keep a scroll in your bosom!’ He replied, ‘Heaven will show mercy.’ — ‘I,’ he remonstrated, ‘am telling you words of reason, and you say “Heaven will show mercy”! It will surprise me if they do not burn both you and the scroll of the Law with fire.’ ‘Rabbi,’ said the other, ‘How do I stand with regard to the world to come?’ — ‘Is there any particular act that you have done?’ he enquired. He replied: ‘I mistook Purim-money for ordinary charity-money, and I distributed [of my own] to the poor as tzedaka.’ ‘Well then,’ he said, ‘would that your portion were my portion and your lot my lot.’”

When reading this Talmudic piece, one is bothered by two questions: a) what was the argument between R. Yossi ben Kisma and R. Chanina Ben Teradion? Indeed, R. Yossi had “told him words of reason,” while R. Chanina did not seem to respond to his protest. b) When R. Chanina wanted to know if he had a portion in the World to Come, he says, “I mistook Purim-money for ordinary charity-money, and I distributed [of my own] to the poor as tzedaka.” Is this the only mitzvah that R. Chanina can think of?! Surely, a sage who was going on literal self-sacrifice had done countless good deeds.

Perhaps we can postulate that the argument between R. Chanina ben Teradion and R. Yossi ben Kisma is a recurrence of the dispute that Mordechai had with the Sanhedrin.

Reb Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin explains (Resisei Layla 52) that the members of the Sanhedrin at the time of the Purim story were against Mordechai’s actions of publically not bowing down before Haman.

They forbade antagonizing Haman based on the Talmud (Berachot 7b), “If you see a wicked man upon whom fortune is smiling, it is forbidden to antagonize him. For it is said (Tehillim 10:7): His ways prosper at all times.”

Indeed the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni 1054) says, that Haman had told Mordechai that Yaakov himself had bowed before Esav and surely he should too. While Mordechai responded that he was from Binyamin, who had not bowed down, as he was not yet born, the Sanhedrin believed that if it was proper for Yaakov, it is understood that this is the appropriate behavior course of action in this scenario.

While Mordechai may have had flimsy halachik backing for his action, he did not reckon with logic—even Torah reasoning—and publically sanctified G-d’s name. Come what may, he was not going to desecrate G-d’s name and bow to the evil Haman. He did not stop at merely not bowing, but he publically gathered pupils to teach them Torah.

It would seem that a similar argument occurred with R. Chanina ben Teradion and the Romans. R. Chanina did not consider whether his actions were demanded or permissible according to the strict letter of the law. Instead, he sanctified G-d’s name and gathered pupils to teach them Torah.

When R. Yossi ben Kisma said “I am telling you words of reason” as to why according to Torah it is forbidden to brazenly disregard the Roman’s edict, R. Chanina responded, saying, “Heaven will show mercy.”

Though commentators (Maharsha, Ben Yehoyada) explain that his words indicated that he was hoping for a miracle, from the fact that a miracle did not occur, it is plausible to explain that he meant something else entirely.

He wasn’t responding to R. Yossi ben Kisma’s “words of reason” with reason of his own, he was saying, “I am at a state of ‘ad d’lo yada,’ higher than reason and logic.” He was essentially declaring, “Perhaps my life will indeed be sacrificed, but G-d should have mercy and judge my actions favorably, despite the fact that they aren’t in accordance to the strict letter of the law.

While in the story of Mordechai’s struggle against the Persians, G-d chose to save him, for whatever reason, the result was not the same with R. Chanina ben Tradion’s struggle against the Romans. Eventually the Romans caught him and burned him at the stake.

According to the above perhaps can be explained the statement, “I mistook Purim-money for ordinary charity-money, and I distributed [of my own] to the poor as tzedaka.”

It can be explained, that what was meant by this curious response was that for him he doesn’t only act in a logical manner of tzedek—righteousness—but instead he transcends reason and is constantly in a mode of Purim. The way he gives money to the poor is not according to rules, but in the Purimdike manner of giving to all that extend their hands.

It was due to this mindset that he knew that his actions were indeed befitting his person and not merely a pretentious act which was above his stature.

Indeed, when R. Yossi ben Kisma saw that R. Chanina ben Tradion had reached a level of which  he was one with G-d, no matter the consequences and was Purimdik in his regular life as well, he too conceded that his actions were proper, declaring, “would that your portion were my portion and your lot my lot.”

The lesson is clear: When we look at the story of the megilla superficially, we are likely to judge the actions of Mordechai as reckless and irresponsible.

True, at the end of the day the Jews were saved, but wasn’t it Mordechai’s actions that caused the debacle to begin with?! If he hadn’t provoked Haman, Haman would not have resolved to eradicate the Jewish People. He couldn’t have possibly known that he would have been saved, so how had he acted in a careless manner from the get-go?

This though, is the lesson of R. Chanina ben Teradion, which completes the Purim story. Mesirat Nefesh is not acting in a brazen manner because one hopes and believes they will be saved. It is the statement that a Jew cannot be separate from G-d, come what may. One doesn’t go on Mesirat Nefesh with reckoning and logic, one surpasses all logic to sanctify G-d’s name.

In our times a Jew need not sanctify G-d’s name to die as a Jew, he must sanctify his name to live as one. In our lives we must not let anything distract us from our service to HaShem; instead we should gather Jews together and teach them the word of HaShem, not being embarrassed by the scoffers.

May we indeed not be distracted by any arguments as to why we must cool down in our fervor and faith, but have the tenacity to live as Jews who study Chassidus and imbue our entire lives with self-sacrifice!

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