Rabi Chanina ben Dosa lived in abject poverty. His wife would light the oven every Erev Shabbos so that smoke would emerge from it and the neighbors shouldn’t realize that they had no food to place inside.
One day his wife turned to him and asked, “How long will we go on suffering so much?”
“What should we do?” he replied.
“Daven that something may be given to you,” she asked of him.
Rabi Chanina davened and he was handed the leg of a golden table. Subsequently, his wife saw in a dream how all the tzaddikim would sit at a golden table with four legs, and her husband would sit at a table with three legs.
“Are you content that everyone shall eat at a whole table and you at an imperfect table?” she asked him.
“What then should we do?” Rabi Chanina asked her.
“Daven that it be taken back from you,” his wife said.
Rabi Chanina davened and it was taken back (Taanis 25a).
Certainly Rabi Chanina was aware when he initially davened that anything he would be given would be deducted from his share in the World to Come. So after being informed of the dream, why did he request that the golden table leg be taken back?
One approach is that there are two types of challenges. One is the challenge of poverty, the other is of wealth. Both
are very difficult nisyonos. Shlomo Hamelech, the wisest of men, declares in Mishlei: “Give me neither poverty nor wealth.” For an abundance of wealth can cause one to forget that his sole source of sustenance is Hashem. Reliant on his own resources, a wealthy man can easily fall into the disastrous trap of forgetting about Hashem. Yet, those who are wealthy and still rise above this challenge and retain their level of righteousness deserve an enormous amount of reward for each mitzvah they perform.
Rabi Chanina initially thought that it would be beneficial to accept upon himself the test of wealth, but was subsequently reminded from Shamayim that while a person must do all he can to overcome any tests he is given, a person should avoid asking for nisyonos. Doing so could cause even a great tzaddik to stumble, and therefore he would actually lose instead of increase any rewards he would receive — hence the three legs instead of the four.
Using this concept, one can also understand another Chazal.
When Rabi Elazar fell deathly ill, Rabi Yochanan came to visit him and saw that Rabi Elazar was weeping. Rabi Yochanan asked why he was crying. “If it was because you were unable to learn as much Torah as you wished, we have learned ‘one who gives much is the same as one who gives less, as long as his heart is directed towards Shamayim.’ If it is because you weren’t wealthy, ‘not everyone merits two tables’” (Brachos 5b).
At first glance this Gemara is perplexing. Even an extremely simple person about to leave the world would have other things on his mind than to cry that he wasn’t wealthy!
Rather, Rabi Yochanan suspected that Rabi Elazar was weeping over the fact that he hadn’t been granted the nisayon of wealth, to which he told him that “not everyone merits two tables” — i.e., both worlds. Had he been granted this test he might not have passed it.
Rashi teaches us in this week’s parashah: When Yaakov sought to dwell in tranquility, the troubles of Yosef sprang upon him. “The righteous seek to dwell in tranquility.” Said Hakadosh Baruch Hu, “What is prepared for the righteous in the World to Come is not sufficient for them; they seek to dwell in tranquility in this world!”
Why, indeed, did Yaakov Avinu — who decades earlier had only requested of Hashem the most basic of necessities — “bread to eat and a garment to wear” — desire in his later years to “dwell in tranquility,” a term that indicates a life of relative comfort?
Yaakov Avinu had no interest in wealth — but rather in the nisayon of wealth.
Hakadosh Baruch Hu therefore stated that since “what is prepared for the righteous in the World to Come is not sufficient for them, they seek to dwell in tranquility in this world [through passing the nisayon of wealth] — so as to add to their reward in the World to Come.”
Yaakov Avinu had evaluated himself and sensed correctly that he indeed would be able to pass this most difficult test. But his young children were not yet prepared for such a test. We have no inkling of the greatness of the Avos and the Shevatim, but as long as the family faced adversaries and troubles there was no jealousy or hatred between the brothers. Once they experienced tranquility, “the troubles of Yosef sprang upon him.”
(Based on a teaching of the Ksav Sofer, zt”l)