1) AGADAH: CHONI HA'ME'AGEL'S SEVENTY-YEAR SLUMBER
QUESTION: The Gemara relates that throughout his life, Choni ha'Me'agel was bothered by the meaning of the verse, "... When Hash-m returned the captives of Zion, we were like dreamers" (Tehilim 126:1). When Hash-m returned the Jews from the seventy-year exile in Bavel, it was like they awakened from a slumber of seventy years. Choni was perplexed how a person could sleep for seventy years.
Hash-m provided an answer to Choni's question. Choni met a man planting a carob tree, and he asked him why he was planting a tree which would bear fruit only after seventy years. The man told him that just as his father had planted a carob tree for him, he wanted to plant a carob tree for his children. Afterwards, Choni sat down to eat his bread and was overcome with sleep. He was hidden behind a rock formation, where he slept for seventy years. When he awoke, he saw the grandson of the man who planted the carob tree picking carobs from the tree. He also saw that his donkey had given birth to herds of donkeys.
When he discussed subjects with the Chachamim in the Beis Midrash, they commented that his answers made the subjects "as clear as they were in the days of Choni ha'Me'agel." The Gemara relates that they did not believe him when he said that he was Choni and they did not give him proper respect. He prayed to Hash-m to spare him the frustration, and he was taken from the world.
The question which bothered Choni throughout his life seems nonsensical. The verse says only that "we were like dreamers (k'Cholmim)." It is clearly a metaphor: the years of the Babylonian exile passed like a dream. The verse does not say that the exiles actually slept for seventy years. Why was Choni bothered with how a person could sleep for seventy years?
ANSWER: The CHIDUSHEI HA'GE'ONIM (in the EIN YAKOV) and the VILNA GA'ON (as recorded by his son in SA'ARAS ELIYAHU, p. 12) explain that the seventy years of slumber which Choni wondered about represents the average lifespan of a person. Choni saw that the people in his generation did not concentrate their efforts on Torah study and Mitzvah fulfillment, but they wasted their time on material pursuits. He wondered how a person could neglect his primary purpose in the world and spend his life focused on transient, meaningless pursuits (and thus "sleep for seventy years").
Choni wanted to find out what motivates people to waste their time in this world and to spend their seventy-year lifespan doing nothing more than sleeping, with their eyes closed to the true purpose of life. This was the question which bothered Choni for so long.
Hash-m revealed to him part of the answer. Hash-m showed him a person planting a carob tree. He asked the person why he was planting a carob tree if he would not be around to enjoy its fruits, since a carob tree bears fruit only after seventy years. Choni recognized that most people waste their time in pursuit of meaningless pleasures in this world because the pleasure of Olam ha'Ba is not immediate while the pleasure of Olam ha'Zeh is immediate. People prefer to receive immediate gratification rather than to invest their energies in obtaining pleasure that will come only after many years.
In his conversation with the man who planted the carob tree, Choni discovered the answer to his question about why people waste their lives in pursuit of meaningless pleasures. The man -- by planting a carob tree -- was acting in a way incongruous with the way other people act. The man was willing to forgo immediate gratification and instead toil for a benefit which would be reaped only seventy years later, just as one who engages in Torah and Mitzvos defers his pleasure to Olam ha'Ba. Most other people prefer the immediate but fleeting pleasures of this world.
When the Gemara says that Choni "sat down to eat," it means that he realized that it was the desires of this world (represented by eating) which shut a person's mind and lure him to meaningless pursuits. The realization of the taste of worldly pleasures caused him to "be concealed by a rock," which refers to the Yetzer ha'Ra which entices a person to abandon his pursuit of Olam ha'Ba in exchange for worldly pleasures (the Gemara in Sukah (52a) relates that "Yechezkel called the Yetzer ha'Ra 'rock'") and to "fall asleep" and neglect the pursuit of a meaningful life for seventy years.
When Choni awoke, he saw that his donkey ("Chamor") had given birth to many herds. When man immerses himself in the material pursuits of this world, he becomes irreversibly entrenched and cannot extract himself from the drive for worldly pleasure, which is represented by the Chamor. (The Chamor, donkey, symbolizes a total attachment to the material pleasures of this world. The word "Chamor" is related to "Chomer" and "Chumriyus," materialism.)
2) AGADAH: RAIN AND REPENTANCE
QUESTION: When Aba Chilkiyah (the grandson of Choni ha'Me'agel) and his wife prayed for rain, his wife's prayers were answered first. The Gemara explains in its first answer that her prayers were answered first because of the merit of her acts of Tzedakah: she gave food to the poor, while her husband gave only money. She was available in her home at all times to help the poor, and whenever a poor person came to ask for help she would give him something. In return for her superior fulfillment of the Mitzvah of Tzedakah, her prayers for rain were answered first.
The Gemara's second reason for why her prayers were answered first is because she used to pray that the sinners in her neighborhood do Teshuvah and repent, while her husband used to pray that they die. In return, she was rewarded that her prayers for rain were answered first.
According to the Gemara's first reason (her acts of Tzedakah were superior), the element of reward measure-for-measure, "Midah k'Neged Midah," is evident. Since she provided sustenance to the poor, she merited that Hash-m provided sustenance to the world through her prayers for rain.
However, what is the relationship between her prayers that the sinners repent, and being rewarded that her prayers for rain were answered first? Why should rain come in the merit of her prayers that the sinners repent? (YEFEH EINAYIM, cited by BEN YEHOYADA)
(a) The repentance of sinners is a form of renewal and rejuvenation. When they do Teshuvah, they are considered as though they are returning to life from a state of death. Similarly, rain provides new life to the world. (See BEN YEHOYADA.)
(b) The Gemara later (25b) relates that both Rebbi Eliezer and Rebbi Akiva prayed for rain, but only Rebbi Akiva's prayers were answered. A Bas Kol proclaimed that the reason why Rebbi Akiva's prayers were answered was not because he was greater than Rebbi Eliezer, but because he was "Ma'avir Al Midosav" -- he was forgiving of insult.
What does the Gemara mean when it says that Rebbi Akiva was not greater than Rebbi Eliezer? If Rebbi Akiva was "Ma'avir Al Midosav" while Rebbi Eliezer was not, then Rebbi Akiva indeed was greater!
RAV YISRAEL SALANTER (in OR YISRAEL #28) explains that there are two different approaches to the service of Hash-m. Rebbi Eliezer's attribute was strict adherence to the honor of the Torah, to uphold and protect it. This attribute was similar to the attribute of Shamai, Rebbi Eliezer's mentor (Tosfos, Shabbos 130b), as the Gemara in Shabbos (31a) describes. Rebbi Akiva, a student of the academy of Hillel, approached Avodas Hash-m with a different attribute -- that of humility and forgiving of insult, the attribute of Hillel (ibid.). Both are equally valid approaches in serving Hash-m; one cannot be called "greater" than the other. This difference in approach was the subject of dispute like any other Machlokes Tana'im. Although in this case the Halachah was later decided in favor of Hillel (Shabbos 30b), this does not detract from the value of the Avodas Hash-m of Shamai and his followers.
If both approaches are equally valid, why was Rebbi Akiva's prayer answered and Rebbi Eliezer's was not? The answer is that when one beseeches Hash-m for Rachamim (to bring rain), if he embodies the attribute of Rachamim himself his prayers will be answered, measure for measure.
According to Rav Yisrael Salanter's explanation, Aba Chilkiyah's wife was answered first because her attribute was that of Rachamim, as she demonstrated by her prayers that the sinners not die but repent. In response to her prayers measure for measure, Hash-m exercised His trait of Rachamim and sent rain to the people. (M. Kornfeld)