A Floating Skull on Lake Pontchartrain

Friday, 5 May, 2023 - 1:34 pm

In 1985 a skull fragment was discovered near the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. At the time they were only able to determine that it belonged to a female 25-35 years old. As technology improved, further testing was done, and a greater profile was developed. Just last week it was reported that cold case investigators used carbon 14 testing and determined that the skull fragment was from a person who lived around 1500 BCE. Testing even revealed some of her lifestyle and eating habits.

As I came across this news story, I thought about a similar story reported in the Talmud (Avot Chapter 2). The great sage Hillel was walking alongside a body of water and saw a skull floating atop the water. Pondering what he saw, he declared, “You were drowned because you drowned others. And ultimately, those who drowned you will also drown.”

Maimonides explains that Hillel was teaching us the principal of “measure for measure.” He then adds that if this is true in a negative sense, how much more so does G-d reward someone for a positive matter. Rambam’s grandson suggests in the name of “the ancient ones” that the skull belonged to Pharaoh, who ruled Egypt at the time of the Exodus. (Interestingly this would place the skull that Hillel saw to have lived around the same time period (give or take a century or two) as the skull fragment discovered on the Northshore in 1985.)

The Arizal cites this interpretation and gives a radical insight. The second half of Hillel’s statement, “And ultimately, those who drowned you will also drown” is addressed not to Pharaoh, but to the Jewish people. It is Hillel’s way of comforting the Jews through the terrible millennia of persecution, that no matter how insurmountable a circumstance we might be facing, Hashem has the last word. Indeed, we look back at all of those who sought to “drown us” and they themselves have been relegated to the history books, while Am Yisrael Chai.

The Rebbe adds an even more radical insight. Hillel was known to be a humble and kind man. Why would he rebuke a skull, even that of Pharaoh, over a thousand years after his demise? Hillel said to himself, “Why would Hashem show me this sight?” By using Pharaoh to bring a meaningful message to the Jewish people, Hillel granted Pharaoh’s wandering soul a measure of peace as well.

As Paul Harvey would sign off… “And now you know, the rest of the story.”

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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