|Pirkei Avot: The Voice of Torah 5:7|
|Written by Rabbi Chaim Goldberger|
The Mishnah tells us there were ten miracles performed for our ancestors in the time of the (First) Beit Hamikdash:
1) No woman ever miscarried from the smell of the sacrificial meat.
2) The sacrificial meat never spoiled.
3) No fly was ever seen in the slaughtering area.
4) The Kohen Gadol never experienced an accidental pollution on Yom Kippur night.
5) The rain never extinguished the flame on the Altar.
6) The wind never dispersed the smoke rising from the burnt offerings.
7) No disqualification was ever found in the Omer, Two Loaves, or Showbreads.
8) People would stand crushed together, yet would have sufficient space to prostrate and bow at the hearing of God’s Name.
9) No snake or scorpion ever caused harm in Jerusalem.
10) No one ever said, “I cannot find space to sleep over in Jerusalem.”
The classical commentators explain that these are phenomena that defy nature, thereby testifying to the presence of the Shechina in the Beit Hamikdash.
This explanation leaves me unsatisfied, for a variety of reasons:
First of all, some of these items would yield very scant evidence to God’s presence. If no woman miscarried, how would the average onlooker know that was because of the Divine Presence. Maybe these women simply did not have these particular cravings? Similarly, the absence of the Kohen Gadol’s pollution and any disqualification in the Omer or other offerings could be seen as happy accidents. How are these two items in the list?
If the ability for crushed crowds to miraculously find space for prostration, why must this miracle be duplicated in having Jerusalem itself stretch to accommodate everyone? Indeed, why does item #10 have to be written as a quote – why not just say, “No visitor ever lacked for a place to sleep in Jerusalem”?
In truth, we already have a way to give evidence that the Shechina is present. How did we know Hashem’s Presence had descended onto Mount Sinai? There were thick clouds, thunder, and lightning, and the ground around the mountain grew verdant with flowers and greenery. Why not let these phenomena be present at the Beit Hamikdash to give testimony that Hashem was there? Why do we need these ten odd items, including a no-fly zome, to give us a tried and true message?
Finally, Pirkei Avot is a book of ethical and moral instruction, not a book of history. What do I learn today from the fact that God did these miracles for my ancestors in an earlier era?
I believe we are missing the point of this Mishnah.
Why is there a Beit Hamikdash in the first place? The Torah tells us:
Make for Me a Mikdash, that I might dwell amongst the people.
God says – My primary dwelling place may be in Heaven, but I desire an earthly abode as well, where I can live in the midst of My people. He wants, as it were, a Mother-in-Law suite, where he can stay with us on His extended visits.
It is indeed wonderful to receive a great dignitary as a visitor in your domain. But such visits bring with them not inconsequential burdens and demands. To host a visiting statesman, you may have to upgrade security, review protocols, and make special provisions for unusual food items and other needs of the guest. And the consequences of errors or failures can put everybody on edge.
God wants to visit us, but He wants to do it in such a way that the extra demands that will fall on His hosts as a result of His visit will not result in unbearable burdens and grief. In order to insure that His visits not be marred by unpleasant side-effects, God instituted ten miracles that enveloped us all throughout His stay.
1) No woman miscarried – An outcome of God’s presence in the Temple was the introduction of high volumes of meat sacrifices. This could have resulted, God forbid, in miscarriages, due to the intense aroma. God did not want His visit to have this collateral effect, and so He instituted this miracle.
2) No meat spoiled – Imagine a State Dinner, where an important dish got ruined because a delay in the Press Conference led to a delay in the serving of the meal. The chef would be devastated! God instituted this miracle to prevent a similar occurrence with the sacrificial meat.
3) No-fly zone – Picture a renowned Rosh Yeshiva, who accepts an invitation to dine in your sukkah but with one proviso. His custom is to put honey on all his food, not just the challah. You agree and provide massive quantities on honey, but then the bees discover it. Your guest may be happy, but you feel miserable, unable to provide a pest-free environment. We would feel the same way toward our Guest, so Hashem includes this miracle.
4) No accidental pollution – Even the most tolerant person can lose his patience if an accident occurs just at the moment he is playing host to the most important guest he has ever had. At those moments, we consider even accidents unacceptable. This miracle provides for that.
5) Rain does not put out Altar fire – The wood for the fire was donated by a rotation of families. What if the rain – an otherwise perfectly natural phenomenon – happened to put out the fire specifically on the day your family had donated the logs? You would be destroyed! Hashem in his sensitivity as a guest makes sure that cannot happen.
6) Wind does not disperse the smoke – The smoke going up to Heaven is a sign the offerings were pleasing to God. Wind dispersing the smoke would appear to be saying God is not satisfied with our service. Even if that were not how God felt, He does not want us to think He might be.
7) No disqualifications – If there would be such a disqualification, there is no real problem. We would simply not be obligated to bring these offerings that year. But how badly we would feel! So Hashem makes a miracle that precludes that possibility.
8) Room to bow – A person hosting such an important guest craves the ability to show proper homage to his guest. Hashem makes a miracle so as not to deny him that opportunity regardless of the size of the crowd.
9) Snakes and scorpions – One might think a guest should consider himself responsible for direct injury his visit might impose, but not for secondary causation. Here we learn otherwise. Why are the snakes and scorpions attacking? Because so many people are visiting and this is cramping their territory. God’s presence is just causing the crowds. It is the crowds that are causing the snakebites. Nevertheless, God considers that His responsibility, and He makes a miracle to restrain the attacks.
10) No complaints – It is no fun to provide for a guest while your children are busy complaining to you about how his visit puts them out. Hashem makes sure no such complaints were heard – not by taking away their free will, but by helping make sure no one has what to complain about.
We learn much for ourselves from this Mishnah. We must take responsibility not merely for taking care of others, but even for taking care of the people who are taking care of us. This lesson in sensitivity is highly appropriate for a work like Pirkei Avot, and it teaches us so much of what God’s Presence in the world can do to help us grow into great, holy, and refined beings, just like our Master.