"for as you see the Egyptians today, you shall not continue to see them, forever" (Shmot 14:13)
The star studded sky shone down on the house of Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the famed Netziv of Volozhin. Shabbat had ended some time ago, and the Netziv and his students were enjoying a melave malka meal, liberally flavored with heated Talmudic discourse.
The peaceful scene was interrupted by the sounds of fierce knocking on the door. The door opened, and a rather stern, somewhat unpleasant looking man entered the room. "I have a question for the rabbi!" the man announced.
The students at the table were somewhat taken aback at the brusque tone the man used to address the revered rabbi. The Netziv, however, didn’t seem to mind. "Please, ask your question," prompted the Netziv.
"As you know" began the man, "I’ve been a butcher for decades. About twenty years ago, I went into business with Shlomo Levi. Our partnership went well for a while. After a few years, though, we started to argue. It got so bad that we had to dissolve our partnership. I was so hurt that I swore that I would never look at Shlomo’s face again! All these years, I’ve kept my word. From that day on, I haven’t once looked at his face. If I saw him in the street, I would change direction and go down a different street. I switched shuls so that I wouldn’t meet him there. I did everything I possibly could to make sure that I wouldn’t see his face."
The man paused, and sighed. "I just heard that Shlomo Levi passed away. His funeral is scheduled for tomorrow morning. If I had to be totally honest, well, the truth is that I can’t even remember what it was that he and I fought about. This is my last chance to… to see his face. And to ask forgiveness for all those years I kept up this bitter fight. I just know that if I don’t ask his forgiveness now, I’ll be filled with regret for the rest of my life."
The man looked around the room, and his gaze settled once again on the Netziv. "Rabbi, tell me, am I allowed to go tomorrow, and ask his forgiveness? Does my promise not to look at his face mean that I can’t even go to his funeral?"
The students sitting around the table began to discuss the unusual story, and its implications. The Netziv encouraged them to find a solution to the problem the man presented. Suddenly, the Netziv’s nephew, Rabbi Baruch Epstein, author of the Torah Temima, stood up. He presented the following thought:Answer of Rabbi Baruch Epstein, zt"l:
It is clear that the butcher’s promise does not prevent him from attending the funeral. The butcher does not even require hatarat nedarim (nullification of vows). In this last week’s Torah portion, we read "and Moshe said to the nation ‘do not fear, stand and see the salvation of Hashem… "for as you see the Egyptians today, you shall not continue to see them, forever" (Shmot 14:13) From the words of Moshe, it is understood that the Jewish people will never again see the Egyptians. However, several verses later, we read "and Israel saw the Egyptians, dead on the seashore" (Shmot 14:30). There are midrashim which state that the Jewish people even saw the faces of the Egyptians, and were able to identify those Egyptians who had personally oppressed them. From here we see that Hashem’s promise that the Jews would not see the Egyptians again did not preclude the possibility of seeing the Egyptians after they had died. So too, in our case, when the butcher swore that he would not look at the face of his former partner, it did not include seeing him after death.
The Netziv heard the words of his nephew, and in accordance with Rabbi Epstein’s understanding, told the butcher "go to the funeral, and ask forgiveness, as you desire." The Netziv went on to add "there are many pearly and diamonds waiting to be found in the Torah, of which we have no idea. Fortunate is the one who succeeds in uncovering those pearls!"
In summary: It is permitted for the butcher to look at his deceased partner. The intention of the butcher’s promise to not look at his partner was relevant only when the partner was alive, and did not apply after the partner passed away.
(Adapted from My Uncle the Netziv)