In the spring of 1943 Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, known as the Ponovezher Rav, established an orphanage in B'nei B'rak to absorb and care for the many orphaned children who had been rescued from the Holocaust and were sent to the Land of Israel. Unfortunately, with the first group of children scheduled to arrive on a Sunday, the Ponovezher Rav found himself without any linens or pillows for the children to sleep on due to the dire situation in Israel at that time. On Friday, with two days remaining until their arrival, Rabbi Kahaneman announced that he would be speaking on Shabbos afternoon in the largest synagogue in town.
He began his speech by citing the Talmud in Bava Metzia (62a), which discusses a case in which two people are lost in the desert with only one flask of water. If they split the water between them, both will die before they are able to reach the nearest settlement, but if one of them drinks it, he will be able to survive. Rebbi Akiva derives from our verse (Leviticus 25:36) that your life takes precedence over that of your friend, and therefore the one with the water should drink it all.
On the other hand, the Talmud (Kiddushin 20a) teaches that a person who acquires a Jewish servant in a sense acquires a master for himself, due to the Torah's requirement to equate the servant's standard of living to his owner's level of comfort. Tosefos adds that sometimes even this is not sufficient, such as in a case when the owner possesses only one pillow. If he takes it for himself, he violates the Torah's requirement to give his slave equal treatment, and he therefore has no choice but to give his only pillow to his servant, leaving himself with nothing on which to sleep.
Rabbi Kahaneman noted that this ruling of Tosefos seems to contradict the teaching of Rebbi Akiva. Just as the person who is lost in the desert is permitted to drink all of the water due to the principle of "your life takes precedence," shouldn't this same reasoning allow the master to keep his sole pillow for himself?
The Ponovezher Rav explained that the two rulings are in fact compatible, as the requirement to give the pillow to the servant actually emanates from the Torah's concern for the primacy of the owner's well-being. If the master were to keep the pillow and lay down in comfort while observing his servant tossing and turning, his conscience would bother him so much that he wouldn't be able to enjoy the pillow and a good night's rest. Therefore, precisely in order to allow the master to be at peace with the arrangement, the Torah requires him to give the pillow to his servant for his own well-being so that he can sleep soundly through the night.
Similarly, the Ponovezher Rav continued, in only one day a large group of Jewish children would be arriving at the new orphanage in B'nei B'rak, which was completely lacking pillows and sheets on which they could sleep. Questioning how any of those present could go home and enjoy a comfortable night's sleep now that they were aware of this situation, he advised them that for their own well-being, they should immediately donate the only pillows and linens in their possessions, a suggestion which was fulfilled by the inspired and touched listeners as soon as Shabbos was finished.
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BUYING A BURIAL PLOT
"Et kaspecha lo titein lo b'neshech ub'marbit lo titein achlecha" (Leviticus (25:37). There was once a wealthy Jew in Posen (Poland) who stingily refused to give any charity and would only extend loans to Jews in need if they agreed to pay him back with interest, despite the Torah's explicit prohibition against doing so. When the man died, the local burial society decided to demand an exorbitant amount of money from his family as payment for a burial plot in the local cemetery, but before doing so, they first consulted Rabbi Akiva Eiger, who consented to their plan.
When the man's family heard about this unprecedented condition, they went to the authorities to complain. Since their grievance seemed legitimate, the local government official summoned the rabbi to defend this seemingly discriminatory policy. Why was the burial society accustomed to charging a relatively small amount for a burial plot for all other dead Jews, and were even willing to forego payment when an indigent community member passed away, yet the rabbi had permitted them to demand a massive sum in order to bury the deceased miser?
Rabbi Akiva Eiger responded by explaining that one of the fundamental tenets of Judaism is a belief in the resurrection of the dead, which we pray for daily and hope will occur imminently. As such, when a Jew is buried, he is only "renting" the burial plot for a short while until Moshiach arrives and brings the dead back to life, and it is appropriate to charge him a token sum for what we hope will be the use of the ground for only a short period of time.
However, our Sages teach (Yalkut Shimoni - Yechezkel 375) that somebody who lends money with interest will not merit rising for the resurrection of the dead. Because the dead man in question had consistently lent out his money with interest, his use of the burial plot was not a temporary rental but a long-term purchase, and as such, it was only appropriate for him to pay substantially more than the price charged to other Jews for a burial plot. The official accepted the logic of this explanation and ruled that the man's family must pay the price requested by the burial society in order to receive his eternal resting place.