The Talmud (Taanit) includes a long and fascinating story about a righteous man, Choni, the Circle Drawer. Through a complicated series of acts, he is able to plead successfully to God for rain during a drought, and the Jews are saved.
The Talmud then uses the story of Choni to explain a verse in Psalms. Rabbi Yochanan says that Choni could not understand the verse, “When God returns the captivity of Zion, we will be like dreamers,” which compares the 70-year exile to a dream.
In the story, Choni approaches an old man planting a carob tree – which is said to take 70 years to grow – and asks whether he expects to live to eat the fruit of the tree. In a well-known aphorism, the man responds that he plants for his descendants just as his ancestors planted for him.
Choni then falls asleep and awakens – yes, you guessed it – 70 years later. He finds that the planter’s grandson is now eating of the fruit of the tree and that the planter’s donkey had given birth to generations of donkeys.
Choni returns home and asks if his son is still alive. He learns that his son is no longer living, but that his grandson is alive. When Choni tries to convince his family and the scholars in the study hall that he is still alive, no one believes him. He becomes depressed, prays to God to take his soul and he dies. The story ends with Choni’s grandson continuing in his grandfather’s footsteps, as he is able to bring rain to the Jews when needed.
What is one to make of this truly compelling story? What are the rabbis of the Talmud who wrote these stories telling us?
First, it must be understood that Choni is a great man. His special relationship with God – in the form of his successful prayers for rain – is an indication of his status. When he awakens, he sees that his people have lived after him and even prospered – the generations of donkeys are a symbol of their material success. One grandson is a righteous man (tzaddik) like Choni and can bring rain to the community as he had done. In today’s idiom, we would say that he had naches – big naches, and richly deserved.
However, even a righteous man must learn painful lessons. No one can live forever. Everyone has his season – his right time – on this earth. After that, his place is no longer here. Like the carob tree that is planted and bears fruit many years later, he has created a family and his mission is accomplished. It is now time for the next generations to eat from the rich fruit planted by the previous generation. Choni has planted well. His role has been fulfilled, and he must now move on. As successful as he has been, this is a difficult reality to accept.
And now we return to the image of the dream with which all of this began. The Jewish People were exiled to Babylon for 70 years after the fall of the first Temple. The psalm promises that those 70 years would be like a dream when the Jews return to Zion. Like a dream in what sense? Just as Choni slept for 70 years and awoke to find that his time asleep was not wasted – indeed, it was fruitful both literally and spiritually – so the Jewish People would be restored to its land with its rich legacy intact and its future assured. As for Choni, the return would not be without pain and loss, but it would be a successful restoration – a dream fulfilled.
The rabbis of the Talmud use storytelling as a device to explain the psalm cited above and to inspire faith and to promise comfort. The restoration of Zion was not easy in talmudic times, nor is it easy today. It was an important lesson then and a relevant message today. The rabbis convey profound meaning to their own society and across time through storytelling. It is as if the rabbis of the Talmud were here today to teach the lesson anew.
Paul Socken is distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Waterloo.