Monday, February 25, 2019

The Circle of Life

“The Circle of Life,” is both an apt description of the ups and downs of the life cycle, and also an award-winning song written by the legendary Sir Elton John for the 1994 movie hit “Lion King.” The “Circle of Life,” could also be the appropriate title of a much earlier fascinating event described in the Talmud.

A rabbi named Choni, who lived in the first century BCE, committed an act of great audacity toward God. The Talmud (Ta’anit 19a) states that most of the Hebrew month of Adar had passed and rain had still eluded the land of Israel. The Jewish leadership asked Choni, known for his extreme piety, to pray for rain. He did so, but to no avail. In an act of desperation, he drew a circle on the ground, and stood inside it, refusing to leave the circle until God sent rain. This act forever labeled him as Choni Hama’gel, Choni the circle drawer.

A light rain began, but those assembled complained that unless a strong rain would come, they would all starve. Choni did not leave his circle and prayed for a more robust rain. No sooner had Choni prayed, a torrential rain began, threatening to flood the world. Choni then directed his prayer to God: “It is not for this that I have prayed, but for rain of good will blessing, and bounty.” A hefty rain began. Choni then prayed that the rains cease, and they did.

Some rabbis viewed Choni’s ultimatum to God as overly impudent. Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach, president of the Sanhedrin, told Choni, that were he not someone so close to God and so beloved, he would have been forced to excommunicate Choni for his chutzpah toward God. In the end, the Sanhedrin applied a Scriptural verse (Job 22:28) to Choni, describing his ability to “demand” something of God: “You shall also decree a thing, and it shall be established to you; and the light shall shine upon your ways.”

According to Megillat Ta’anit, which features an ancient listing of important dates on the Jewish calendar, this Talmudic episode with Choni occurred on the 20th of Adar. This story teaches us about the power that God gives to the righteous, and God’s willingness to be dictated to by those whose motives are purely to protect God’s chosen people.

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