By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
R’ Pinchas ben Yair was on his way to fulfill the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim; he came to the Gina’i River and asked it to split for him so that he could continue traveling. The river refused to split for him, arguing, “You are on your way to fulfill the will of your Creator, and I am on my way to fulfill the will of my Creator. For you, it is a doubt whether you will fulfill His will or not. For me, I certainly will fulfill His will.”
R’ Pinchas ben Yair said, “If you do not split, then I will decree upon you that no more water will ever flow through you!” Whereupon, the river split. R’ Pinchas ben Yair then demanded that the river split for another Jew who was carrying wheat for Pesach because he was involved in a mitzvah (Chullin 7a).
The river claimed to be on his way to fulfill the will of Hashem. Where exactly was the river going? Rashi explains that all the rivers in the world flow into the sea because of Hashem’s decree. The river water was on its way to the sea. That was fulfilling the will of Hashem!
This is a beautiful thought most appropriate on Chanukah. It is a rite of Chanukah that many a dvar Torah should attempt to answer the Beis Yosef’s question. At the time of the Chanukah miracle, there was enough oil found to last one night. Therefore, only the additional seven nights were miraculous. Why did Chazal institute that we celebrate Chanukah for eight days? The ba’alei mussar answer that at the time when we are celebrating miracles we should not forget that the natural order is also miraculous. To celebrate Chanukah for seven days would be declaring that nothing special happened the first day. Something special did happen on the first day: oil burned! The fact that oil burns is only because it is Hashem’s will that oil burns. From this vantage point, a miracle and nature are exactly the same; they are both His will. It is Hashem’s will that the world function according to the laws of nature. When we see a disruption in those laws, we call it a miracle. Yet nature is really just as miraculous. The extra night of Chanukah is to commemorate that oil burns!
Rashi explains that the river was claiming that it is possible that R’ Pinchas ben Yair will not be successful in his mission to redeem captives — that ultimately it will be up to the captors if they will accept the ransom or deal — whereas nothing is stopping the river from flowing into the sea. Therefore, the river’s mission should take priority. However, the river’s claim is difficult to understand. Even if R’ Pinchas ben Yair was not successful in his mission, his very act of going is a mitzvah. The Rivash proves this from the person who was carrying wheat. R’ Pinchas ben Yair demanded that the river split for the person who was carrying wheat for matzos because he was involved in a mitzvah. What mitzvah was he involved with? He was not eating matzah. He was not even baking matzah. He was simply transporting wheat to a location where it will eventually be used for matzah.
The Rivash concludes that someone is considered to be involved in a mitzvah even while he is just performing one of the preparatory steps necessary for the mitzvah. The Rivash says there are halachic consequences to this observation. Therefore, in this story, even if R’ Pinchas ben Yair ultimately would not be successful in his mission, he was still involved in a mitzvah at the time he crossed the river.
The Mesivta offered an interesting rationale for the river. The river was arguing that all Hashem wants from everyone is to try their hardest. Success or failure is immaterial. If R’ Pinchas ben Yair could not safely cross the river, then Hashem expects no more of him. He fulfilled the will of His Creator by reaching the river and stopping there. The river then continued, “Perhaps you concede this point. Nevertheless, you wish to continue anyway even though it is not expected because you are interested in the goal. Then, I will argue that your goal of redeeming the captives may be unsuccessful. However, my goal of reaching the sea will be successful.”
R’ Pinchas ben Yair replied that as a human, he has free will. Therefore, his mission is more important and takes precedence over the river’s mission.
At this point, you may be thinking, “Wow, this river is pretty smart! Where did this river go to yeshiva?”
Tosfos was wondering the same. Tosfos says that when the Gemara refers to the river it refers to the angel appointed to oversee that river. Alternatively, Tosfos suggests that the conversation never actually took place. Originally, R’ Pinchas ben Yair demanded that the river split and nothing happened. R’ Pinchas ben Yair himself actually suggested what the rationale was for a miracle not occurring. The second time, Hashem heard his prayer and the river split. Indeed, many Midrashim that involve non-human parties talking may be understood the same way.
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.