Today’s daf (Chagigah 23a) informs us of an unsettling story: ‘There was an incident involving a certain person who was transporting chatat water and chatat ashes over the Jordan River in a boat, and – while doing so – noticed that there was a small remnant of a human body part lodged in the floor of the boat’. On the basis of this incident the Rabbis decreed that ‘a person should not take chatat water and chatat ashes and transport them across the Jordan in a boat’.
Of course, one might have imagined that upon being informed of what took place the Rabbis would had made a more wide-ranging decree against transporting any form of holy item in any boat on any river. Yet, as the Gemara informs us, this decree was established according to כמעשה שהיה – ‘a situation just like the one that occurred’. As such, Rashi explains that ‘whenever our Sages established a decree about a specific issue on the basis of a particular incident, their decree was only applied to cases just like the incident and only involving that specific issue’.
The question we may ask is why is this so? Is it not possible for someone transporting such holy objects to encounter small remnants of human body parts in a range of settings and locations? The answer – of course – is that anything is technically possible, but just because something unusual happened once does not mean it will happen again, and just because an object was found in one place does not mean that similar objects will be discovered in all places.
Given that anything is possible, we must always maintain an awareness of what is going on around us. At the same time, just because something is possible does not mean that we must always alter what we do given the slimmest of possibilities that something unsettling may occur.
However, according to this logic why did the Rabbis make their decree? Surely they could have claimed that such an event is so rare that it need not require any reactive legislation?
I believe that we learn from here is that sometimes events can occur which – notwithstanding their rarity – are so unsettling that they nevertheless need to be responded to by some formal acknowledgement and response by the authorities that this event occurred and should be avoided in the future. Simply put, while it may not occur again, such an event could not be ignored.
What this means is that when strange and unsettling events occur, a formal response is needed. But it needs to be a response that helps foster an atmosphere of awareness, rather than hysteria, and one that acknowledges what occurred, without conveying a sense of fear that it will occur again in the near future.