“Rabbi Chanina the deputy [High] Priest said, pray for the welfare of the government (literally, “the monarchy”), for if not for fear of it, a person would swallow his fellow live.”
Some people astound me. Rabbi Yosef of Couci, the author of Sefer Mitzvot Hagadol, suffered greatly at the hands of King Louis, know as St. Louis, for what he did to the rabbi, and yet, he always stressed the importance of dealing with non-Jews with the greatest respect. His experiences did not color his beliefs.
Rabbi Chanina is another example of such a human being. He was the deputy to the Cohen Gadol, the High Priest, an understudy if you will, who was ready to perform the duties of the Cohen Gadol should he become ritually unfit for the service. Rabbi Chanina was deeply involved in the Temple life. He lived through its destruction by the Romans, and eventually suffered a martyr’s death at their hands.
Rabbi Chanina should have been the new Cohen Gadol each time the position became vacant. But the Roman government continually sold the office to the highest bidder, and deprived Rabbi Chanina of his rightful position.
This man is the one who teaches us that we must pray for the welfare of the government, the same government that destroyed the Beit Hamikdash, killed hundreds of thousands of his brethren, sold tens of thousands into slavery, and would eventually torture him to death.
Rabbi Chanina saw this same government as a source of stability, “For if not for fear of it, a person would swallow his fellow live.” There is still more danger from other people who would “swallow us alive,” than from the Roman government.
In the Midrash he says, “Great is peace, for it ranks with the works of Creation.” (Sifre, Numbers 6:26) It seems that the theme of Rabbi Chanina’s life was, similar to that of his ancestor Aaron HaCohen, to, “Search for peace and pursue it.”
Perhaps it takes a person of peace to achieve Rabbi Channina’s perspective, and that of the SeMaG. Only one who has achieved inner peace can understand the importance of praying for the peace of the government, even the Romans, even the King of France who has ordered the burning of the Talmud.
Perhaps only the person who has achieved inner peace can fully appreciate how thin a line stops us “from swallowing one another alive.”
I imagine Rabbi Chanina reviewing his favorite teaching even while being tortured by the Roman’s and thinking that we should pray for the peace of “Malchut Shamayim,” the Kingdom of Heaven, so that we will all be able to live in true peace.
PS: In the long ago time before people could post whatever they wanted about someone else, and “swallow them alive,” a student of my father’s published a pamphlet libeling my father. This student made sure to have copies delivered to every Jewish home in Toronto, and personal copies delivered to my sister and me in school. I could not understand how my father was not raging, or even angry. But that was nothing compared to the scene when years later, this student came to the Yeshiva campus in Baltimore to beg my father’s forgiveness. My father greeted him warmly, even a hug, and insisted that he had forgiven him long before. He did send the student to my mother to ask her forgiveness. She, shall we say, took a different approach.
I knew that I was witnessing greatness, and when I said so to my father, he corrected me and said, “You witnessed the benefit of achieving peace within.”
Many years later, the student came to Lincoln Square Synagogue to ask my help in finding a “Shidduch” for him. I did not possess the inner peace that was necessary to greet him as did my father, but I did have the desire for such inner peace, and agreed to help him.
Rabbi Chanina’s lesson lives on, not when we recite the prayer for the welfare of the government on Shabbat, but in those of us who desire to achieve the peace within that is the real message of the Mishna.
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