Nachum Ish Gamzu was blind in both eyes, both arms and legs were amputated, and his entire body was covered in boils. He was lying in a dilapidated house, and the legs of his bed were resting in buckets of water, so that if ants tried to crawl up and bite him, they would not be able to.
Once, his students wanted to remove his bed from the house and then afterwards remove some other vessels. He told them to remove the vessels first before removing him, because, “I can guarantee you that as long as I am in the house, the house will not fall.” And that’s exactly what happened: They removed the vessels, then his bed, and then the house collapsed.
His students said to him: Rebbe! You are a righteous man! Why do you suffer so much?
“I brought it upon myself,” he responded, “for one time I was traveling to my father-in-law’s house, and my supplies were distributed on three donkeys. One donkey carried food, one carried drink, and the third carried delicacies. A poor man approached me and said, ‘Rabbi, sustain me!’ I replied, ‘Give me a minute to unload the donkey [and then I’ll give you something to eat].’ However, by the time I unloaded the donkey, the man passed away.
“I fell on his face and declared, ‘May my eyes, which had no compassion on your eyes, be blinded; may my hands, which had no compassion on your hands, be amputated; may my legs, which had no compassion on your legs, be amputated.’ And my mind did not rest until I said, ‘May my entire body be covered in boils.'”
His students said to him, “Woe to us that we have seen you in this state!” He said, “Woe is me if you had not seen me in this state!”
The Talmud then inquires: Why was he called Nachum Ish Gamzu?
Because regardless of what happened, he would say, Gam zu l’tovah — this too is for the best. One time, the Jews wished to send a gift to the Roman emperor. They appointed Nachum to travel, since he was accustomed to miracles happening. They sent him with a chest full of jewels and pearls. On the way, he spent the evening in an inn, and while sleeping, the residents of the inn stole the jewels and replaced them with dirt. When he awoke the next morning, Nachum saw what had happened and said, Gam zu l’tovah.
When he arrived at the emperor’s palace, they opened the chest and saw dirt. The emperor was angered and wanted to execute Nachum and his entourage, saying, “The Jews are mocking me.”
Nachum said, Gam zu l’tovah.
Elijah the Prophet then appeared in the guise of one of the Roman ministers. He said, “Perhaps this dirt is the very same dirt of their father Abraham. When he threw dirt, it turned into swords, and when he threw straw, it turned into arrows.”
Intrigued by the possibility, the emperor decided to test the dirt, and attack a province that they had been unable to conquer. They threw some of the earth at their enemies, and they conquered that province.
The emperor was so pleased with the miraculous powers of the dirt, that he filled Nachum’s chest with precious jewels and pearls and sent him on his way with great accord.
On his way home, he once again stopped at the same inn. The residents asked, “What did you bring with you to the emperor that he bestowed upon you such great honor?”
Nachum said, “That which I took from here, I brought there.”
The residents of the inn thought that the earth of the inn must have miraculous powers, so they demolished the building and brought the soil to the emperor, saying, “The earth that was brought here was from our property.”
The emperor tested the dirt in battle, and found that it did not have miraculous powers, and he had them put to death.
This has always been one of my favorite stories from the Talmud. I think believing that things happen for the best doesn’t mean that whenever something bad happens, we should just roll over and say, “This is for the best,” and leave it at that, without taking any action if action is needed. Instead, I think that believing everything that happens is for the best means that we should strive to find the good, or positive, (they’re not the same thing), in whatever happens.
But I don’t think it’s our job to do this for other people. In fact, I think most of the time, we should refrain from telling other people “This is for the best,” when something bad happens. What the best is in any situation should be left for each individual to find, or not find.