Last week we discussed the blessing "The wise one of secrets" (CHACHAM HARAZIM), recited on seeing a multitude of Jews. The simple understanding of the wording is that God alone possesses the wisdom to fathom the secret and private point of view of each and every human being. However, we added that according to many Rishonim this blessing can also be made on (seeing) a Torah scholar of surpassing stature.
We explained this ruling by pointing out that Moshe requested that Hashem provide a leader who would be able to understand and empathize with each Jew; ever since, this is considered to be the hallmark of inspired Torah leadership.
However, the passage which teaches this ruling is cryptic, to say the least:
Rav Papa and Rav Huna son of Rav Yehoshua were walking in the way, when they encountered Rav Chanina son of Rav Ika. They said to him, when we saw you, we made two blessings: "Blessed is He who shared of His wisdom with those who fear Him" [recited on an accomplished Torah scholar], and "she-he-che-yanu" [said when encountering any friend after a prolonged separation]. He said, I too when I saw you considered you like 600,000 of Israel and I made three blessings: those you mentioned and also "wise one of secrets". They said to him, are you then so wise? They gazed at him and he expired (Berakhot 58b).
This gaze which bears a curse is encountered a number of times in the Talmud, in general towards those who show an unusually callous disregard for the honor of Torah scholars. (Cf. Shabbat 34a, Bava Batra 75a, Sanhedrin 100a.) The simplest understanding here is that Rav Chanina is indeed being "overwise", creatively taking a blessing intended for Hashem and applying it to flesh and blood, thus altering the usage prescribed by the sages. But then we cannot understand why the Tur and others learn from this passage that it actually is appropriate to say a blessing on an outstanding figure like Rav Papa - that Rav Chanina son of Rav Ika was indeed "so wise".
This question is asked by a number of commentators, and many deep and instructive answers are found. Let us examine the explanation of Rav Kook in Ein Ayah on this passage.
Rav Kook distinguishes between the ability of Torah sages to encompass and connect with ordinary Jews on two levels: spiritual and secular. Regarding the spiritual connection, he writes: "Outstanding, selected individuals of the generation can be found who encompass all aspects of consciousness which can possibly be found in each individual in Israel, each one distinguished in his characteristics, his education, and his spiritual qualities." This reflects what we mentioned, that despite the fact that Hashem is "the wise one of secrets", the outstanding Torah leaders can also attain a deep connection with each Jew.
However, this is at the level of spirit. But at the level of secular existence, it is not so. These same sages "know also that despite all their inclusion, general and particular, of the private views which can be found in the mass of mankind which is suited for the source of Israel, despite this, if they are people who are involved also in the temporal existence of the community and the individuals, they will recognize that the true fulfillment of this light will never be found in individuals." Despite the fact that the most essential part of our existence is the spiritual, yet the temporal, material aspect of our existence is not negligible or unimportant. A great spiritual leader may encompass every spiritual insight attainable by all the common people, but he will never be able to encompass all of their worldly achievements.
Rav Kook's explanation that part of the "wisdom of secrets" is to understand and encompass people's worldly pursuits is supported by the original passage in the gemara presenting this blessing. Following the ruling that on a multitude of Israel we recite "wise on of secrets", the gemara adds that Ben Zoma used to recite something else: "Blessed be He who created all these to serve me!" Ben Zoma goes on to explain that in order to eat bread, Adam had to sow, plow, gather, winnow, mill, knead, and bake; but Ben Zoma, living in an urban society, had only to go to the bakery and buy a loaf. When there are many people living together, we benefit at the basic material level from the marvelously varied talents and abilities of all; and this is also part of the praise of the Creator.
Rav Kook explains that Rav Chanina was so totally connected to the world of spirituality that this aspect of the "wisdom of secrets" was negligible for him; thus, the fact that the scholars he encountered were "general souls" on the spiritual level sufficed for him to recite the blessing. As a result, how- ever, his detachment and ascent from temporal existence was so complete that he died "with a kiss", a term used by Chazal and Rashi for being simply summoned on high by God.
Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh.