The story of Nachum Ish Gam Zu is one of the most famous tales told by Chazal. Many of us learned in kindergarten how on the way to deliver a gift to the emperor, the saintly Tanna lodged overnight at an inn, where his host emptied his chest of precious stones and puts sand in their place.
The emperor understandably became furious when he found that the “gift” from the Jews was a chest full of sand. “The Jews are mocking me,” he cried, and decreed death on them all.
“Gam zu l’tovah – this too is for the good,” said Nachum confidently.
Eliyahu Hanavi appeared in the guise of one of the emperor’s men, and suggested that the earth in the chest may have the same miraculous powers as the sand Avraham Avinu hurled when he went to war.
The emperor decided to use the sand against a country that he had been unable to subjugate, and indeed, the sand turned into flying swords and the land was captured.
Another cherished and often quoted story tells of the time that Rabi Akiva, who was a disciple of Nachum Ish Gam Zu, was on a journey. When he was refused lodging in a nearby city and was forced to spend the night in the forest, he declared “All that Hashem does is for the good.”
During the night a lion came and fell upon the donkey he was to ride on, a cat devoured the rooster that served as his alarm clock, and a wind extinguished his lamp. “All that Hashem does is for the good,” said Rabi Akiva.
In the morning he discovered that brigands had carried all the inhabitants of the nearby town into captivity. If he hadn’t been refused lodging, he would have been among them. If the rooster had crowed, the donkey brayed, or the lamp been visible, he would have been discovered on the outskirts of town and captured.
It is noteworthy that while his rebbi said, “This too is for the good,” Rabi Akiva put it a bit differently: “All that Hashem does is for the good.”
The Baal Shem Tov explained that Nachum Ish Zu went further than his student.
Rabi Akiva said “All that Hashem does is for the good.” Even if what occurs appears to be negative, in the greater scheme of things it is beneficial.
For instance, being left without a source of light, something to wake him up, and a mode of transportation remained a discomfort for Rabi Akiva; but it prevented a far greater tragedy – being captured. When the whole picture is analyzed, then “all that Hashem does is for the good.”
What Nachum Ish Gam Zu said was that even the apparently harmful occurrence is positive in itself. In the merit of his bitachon, the very fact that the jewels were switched with sand proved to be of enormous benefit – for the gift of sand that miraculously turned into deadly weaponry was far more impressive than a chest of precious stones.
This week we read about one of the most dramatic revelations in history, as Yosef Hatzaddik reveals his identity to his brothers who had sold him into slavery more than two decades earlier.
“I am Yosef your brother — I, whom you sold to Egypt. And now, be not distressed, do not reproach yourselves for having sold me here, for it was as a supporter of life that Hashem sent me ahead of you.”
Why did Yosef Hatzaddik repeat the words “I am Yosef”?
The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh explains that Yosef was telling them, “I am Yosef your brother”; do not be embarrassed and do not fear to respond, for despite all that transpired, our relationship is still one of brotherhood.
Furthermore, “I, whom you sold to Egypt”: even when you sold me to Egypt the feeling of brotherhood was not extinguished in me.
(Incidentally, the Lechovitcher Rebbe, zy”a, commented that only someone who was on a lofty level of ahavas Yisrael himself could explain the passuk this way.)
Yosef Hatzaddik had no doubt that all that he had suffered and endured was to the benefit of all involved.
Sefarim say that in addition to its obvious meaning of supplying desperately needed food during a devastating famine, Yosef Hatzaddik’s statement that it was as “a supporter of life” he was sent to Mitzrayim is also to be understood on a much deeper level.
Only because Yosef Hatzaddik faced — and overcame — his great nisyonos in Mitzrayim does Klal Yisrael have the strength to spiritually survive the long years in galus.
Phrases like “everything is bashert” and “gam zu l’tovah” are often accompanied by a sigh. Yes, recognizing that all comes from Hashem is a crucial step in the right direction, but what we should strive for is to recognize of the true meaning of gam zu l’tovah — that this in itself is truly for the good and there is no reason to be downcast over it. By believing that what happened is truly for our good even if at the moment we can’t see how or why, we merit to discover the how and why.