“An ox knows his owner and a donkey his master’s trough, but Israel does not know; My people do not think about it seriously” (Yeshayah 1:3)
What’s the meaning of this comparison between the Jewish nation and an ox and a donkey?
The Talmud (Bava Basra 58a) speaks of a man who knew that nine of his 10 sons were really not his, but illegitimate sons of his wife. Before he departed this world, he wrote a will bequeathing all his belongings to one son but did not specify which one. The children came to R’ Bana’a for guidance, and he advised them to strike their father’s grave until he revealed his intention.
All the children went, except one. R’ Bana’a declared that he was the true son because, even though he knew it was possible he would forfeit his inheritance, he refused to dishonor the grave. Why? Because he intuited that it was, in fact, his father’s grave.
There is no rational or scientific explanation for the feeling the son had. But just as an ox recognizes its master and a donkey can distinguish its owner’s trough, a human being possesses a similar innate intuition. Man has another, more refined, trait, however – that of hisbonenus, a deeper comprehension that embodies a spiritual component.
In his prophecy, Yeshaya was saying that although the Jewish people have the capacity of the ox and the donkey – the capacity by which a son knows his father – they lack the spiritual awareness of their master, their heavenly father. This spiritual knowledge can only be gained with toil, effort, and intelligent contemplation.
During the Three Weeks, we mourn the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash; the Shulchan Aruch states that it is proper for one who fears Heaven to lament and grieve the destruction of the Holy Temple. This grief is not about mere external expressions but rather an inner yearning, an inner pain that emerges from hisbonenus, a more extensive comprehension.
An American young man once came to the great gaon R’ Chaim Kanievsky. His grandfather was non-observant and deathly ill. The grandson wanted to inspire his grandfather to do teshuvah before he left this world. He told R’ Chaim that when he was a young boy, his grandfather would often tell his favorite story of a hunter who caught a little bird in his hand. He would then show it to people around him and ask: Is the bird in my palm alive or dead? The appropriate response was: Its fate is in your hand. If you don’t close your hand, the bird will live; if you close your hand tightly, the bird will die.
The young man wanted to know if there was a source for this story in Chazal that could perhaps infuse the old man with emunah and a desire to repent. Rav Kanievsky replied that there is. Yechezkel (37:3) states, “Then Hashem said to me: ‘Son of man, can these bones come to life?’ And I said: ‘Hashem, You know!’” Chazal explain that Hashem will determine whether the bones could come to life.
The young man was happy he could tell his grandfather that his very special story actually came from the Torah. He was certain this fact would inspire his grandfather.
Rav Chizkiyahu Mishkovsky notes that this analogy can be uplifting for us as well for it teaches us that we, “the hunter,” can determine our fate and our fortune.
R’ Shmuel Rozovsky once noted that people have the erroneous belief that when Moshiach comes, they will spontaneously yearn for a deeper understanding of spirituality. The prophet Yechezkel tells us (11:19), “[Hashem says]…I will remove the heart of stone from their body and give them a heart of flesh.” Nevertheless, we are not exempted from exerting our efforts in this world to foster a deeper understanding and yearning for our Creator.
The Chofetz Chaim once met a wagon driver who was known to travel through many towns and villages and asked him to undertake a mission on his behalf. “Surely you will have occasion at some time to travel to the city of Eisiskes (Eyshishok). When you do, please go to my good friend, R’ Yosef Zundel Hutner, and ask him for a blessing for me.”
Months went by and the Chofetz Chaim once again encountered the wagon driver. Puzzled, the Chofetz Chaim said to him, “It is a given that a messenger completes his mission, so I am sure you have fulfilled my request. I am only wondering why you have not returned to convey his message to me.”
The wagon driver hesitated, faltered, and then sputtered. “I’m sorry… forgive me, honored rabbi… I was just not able to repeat the words the rav of Eisiskes said.”
“Why, what did he say?” asked the Chofetz Chaim in amazement.
The wagon driver kept quiet. After a few moments, he said, “I just cannot allow those words to pass through my lips.”
The Chofetz Chaim calmed him down and assured him that whatever R’ Hutner said, he wanted to hear it.
Finally, the wagon driver relented and said, “The rav strongly desires that the Chofetz Chaim speedily walk barefoot and carry stones on his heart.”
As soon as the Chofetz Chaim heard these words, he smiled broadly. “What a beautiful beracha!” he exclaimed, as the wagon driver looked at him in amazement.
“Let me explain,” said the Chofetz Chaim. “I am a kohen, and the rav was blessing me that I should speedily merit to do the avodah in the Beis HaMikdash. In their service in the Beis HaMikdash, the kohanim walk barefoot, and the stones on the heart refer to the avnei choshen that the kohen gadol wears on his heart.”