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The Talmud is full of Musar stories in the following pattern: a Rabbi did X and G-d made him Y, therefore we all should do X so G-d will make us Y.

In many cases, G-d's reaction can be the opposite of Y with the same level of confidence, and only post-factum we realize that the reaction is Y and not not-Y.

For example, the famous story if Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi and the calf (B"M 85a):

"ע"י מעשה באו מאי היא דההוא עגלא דהוו קא ממטו ליה לשחיטה אזל תליא לרישיה בכנפיה דרבי וקא בכי אמר ליה זיל לכך נוצרת אמרי הואיל ולא קא מרחם ליתו עליה יסורין

... There was a calf that was being led to slaughter. The calf went and hung its head on the corner of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s garment and was weeping. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi said to it: Go, as you were created for this purpose. It was said in Heaven: Since he was not compassionate toward the calf, let afflictions come upon him.

Could we negate an opposite reaction from the Heaven - if they said: "Well done R' Yehudah, for you truly understand the benefit for an animal of being sacrificed in the Temple before G-d!"? I doubt, it seems as legitimate as the original outcome.

Just another example: R' Eliezer and the Sages (B"M 59b) - G-d could easily kill all the Sages for not listening to the Heavenly Voice, but He acted differently.

How can we learn from those examples where the outcome is seemingly arbitrary, as it can not be negated?


NB: a slightly different pattern is that a Rabbi does X and the Gemmorah approves/condemns it, but it follows the same reasoning: as we can't negate the outcome - we can't learn from the story.

  • Those are terrible examples. In the former story, it says explicitly that they (somehow) knew that this punishment was Divinely decreed for that action - “It was said in Heaven,” etc. In the latter story, you ignore the segment where a later Amora specifically asked Eliyahu HaNavi what Hashem’s response was at the time of this story. If anything, these stories are proofs to your point - they say explicitly that this was Heaven’s response, implying that had we not know for sure that this was the case, we couldn’t infer it. – DonielF Aug 14 '18 at 23:12
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    @DonielF we couldn't infer it and we cannot extrapolate it further on other cases, for we don't know the divine logic, so the question stands still, what do we learn from those stories? – Al Berko Aug 15 '18 at 9:49
  • Can you bring a case where we don’t actually know what Hashem was thinking and we assume based on the events that took place down here what happened? We’re not inferring anything in these cases that you brought - we know for certain what Heaven was thinking. – DonielF Aug 15 '18 at 11:49
  • @DonielF Yes, I agree that in those two case we knew בדיעבד the outcome, but can we accept this behavior as standard for future occasions? If we don't understand the Heavenly logic, we can not set it as Halachah, I think and if so the next time Hashem might behave differently. That's my question - what can we learn from such cases? – Al Berko Aug 15 '18 at 12:33
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    With the one exception of Rebbe on that list, you’re now just asking on the general principle of derashah. We know what all of those people were thinking based on expositions on the pesukim combined with Torah SheBa’al Peh. If you want to know how we know those are valid, that’s an entirely different question than the one you’re asking now. We know what Nadav and Avihu were thinking, for instance, because the pesukim tell us - you just need to know how to read them. – DonielF Aug 15 '18 at 14:13
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How can we learn from those examples where the outcome is seemingly arbitrary, as it can not be negated?

We learn that our reasoning is lacking, to the extent that what we see as two equally likely choices are in fact one correct and one incorrect choice. The lesson the Talmud is teaching us is all the more valuable for its nonobviousness.

  • Good point, but if that was the "correct answer" why don't we extrapolate Rabbi's behavior and stop bringing sacrifices altogether, worrying about Hashem's anger? – Al Berko Aug 15 '18 at 9:46
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I suggest that what we learn from stories such as these is not how precisely to balance the specific types of competing values presented in them, but rather the independent strength of both the value that God endorses in the story, and the competing value as well. When we're presented with competing values in real life, the facts of every case are going to be different, and no case is ever going to be identical to the one found in the Talmudic story, so the binary question of which value won in that case is not terribly helpful1. However, these stories are very helpful for learning what values to apply, and what values to give qualitatively special weight to, which shapes how we analyze a case to begin with.

Applying this suggestion to your first example:

We see from God's response to R' Yehuda Hanasi that the value of compassion is tremendously strong (to the point that in this case, it outweighed that of duty to God's service). We also see from R' Yehuda's initial reaction that the value of duty to God's service is tremendously strong (to the point that in the mind of this exemplar of Torah values, there was reason to believe that it might outweigh that of compassion). So, if we run into a crying person or animal in real life, we know that we should give strong consideration to giving them mercy. And, if we see an opportunity to devote ourselves to God's service, we know that we should give it strong consideration.


1. This limitation of the value of binary outcomes for future analysis is analogous to a similar limitation to the value of measurement of binary election outcomes, with the way in which the electoral process chooses a single winner standing in, lehavdil vechulei, for God. That is, if 50.1% of the electorate vote for Candidate A and 49.9% vote for candidate B, and Candidate A therefore wins the office, that doesn't indicate that the values represented by Candidate A are substantively any more important in the minds of the population than those represented by Candidate B. Please don't comment presenting the thousand ways in which this analogy is imperfect; it's meant for illustrative purposes only.

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