ב,ז [ו] אף הוא ראה גולגולת אחת צפה על פני המים; אמר לה, על דאטיפת אטיפוך, וסוף מטיפייך יטופון
‘He also saw a skull floating on the water; he said to it: ‘Because you drowned others, they drowned you; and ultimately those who drowned you will themselves be drowned.’
Rav Hirsch responds to this mishna in the following way:
It was obvious to Hillel that the man whose skull was floating on the water had not died by accident but as the result of violence. The head of a corpse floating on the water will not come off; therefore Hillel had to assume that the person had died by violence, and that the murderers had severed the head from the body and then thrown it into the water. Hence the ‘drowning of another and being drowned’ should be interpreted as an allegory rather than an actual description of the way in which the murder was committed. (As it is, the literal meaning of ‘atif’ is not ‘to drown another’ but ‘to wash away’ or ‘to allow to float’.) As others, too, have pointed out, it is hardly likely that Hillel’s intent had been to postulate that every murder victim must have been a murderer himself and that his murderer will be murdered in turn, for such an assumption would not be borne out by fact. Many an innocent man has been a murder victim and not every murderer dies by the hand of another killer. Rather, the thought Hillel wanted to express must have been as follows: Even though a murder may be, in fact, an execution of a Divinely-ordained death sentence, the murderer is still subject to G-d’s judgement for his crime.
On the question of from whose body did the skull come, Rabbi Bogomilsky adds something interesting:
“After the Jewish people walked through the sea onto dry land, and the waters resumed flowing and drowned the Egyptians, Moshe witnesses Pharaoh’s skull floating on the sea.
Hillel was the reincarnation of Moshe, and therefore resembled him in many ways. He, too, served as Nasi of klal Yisrael, exemplified humility, and lived 120 years. Once, Hillel too saw the skull of Pharaoh floating and said to it, ‘Because you drowned the Jewish children in the River Nile, Hashem has punished you measure for measure.
Afterwards, Hillel comforted the Jewish people, saying, ‘Do not despair because of the trials and tribulations confronting you throughout exile. Ultimately, Hashem will come to our salvation and those nations who have been drowning us and afflicting us will be punished by their own methods.’
Thus, Hillel’s message was directed at two separate parties. To the skull he said ‘because you drowned others you were drowned’, and to Klal Yisrael he stated that ‘ultimately those who drown you will themselves be drowned.'”
Rabbi Rosenfeld adds:
Justice is always meted out to evildoers…
Hillel thus saw in this harrowing encounter G-d’s justice in this world. People are not killed randomly; G-d must have allowed it to occur. Although generally G-d permits free will in this world, with few exceptions He would never allow a person to be murdered unless that person had some degree of guilt on the Divine scales. G-d may not have struck the person down Himself: He is “slow to anger” (Exodus 34:6), giving man many opportunities to repent. Yet it was He who allowed the other’s murderous designs to be fulfilled. The victim must have in some way been deserving of his fate. The victim certainly might have been a murderer himself — this is the “textbook version” of the justice we would hope to see in this world and which Hillel conjectured might have been the case. Yet regardless, the victim must have had some degree of guilt — however indiscernible — and for that alone did G-d allow such serious crime to go unchecked.
Of course, we are touching upon a difficult theological issue. Why each victim “deserves” his fate is clearly beyond our comprehension. We will learn later, “It is not within our power to explain neither the tranquility of the wicked nor the suffering of the righteous” (4:19). But again, Hillel was not making an “official” statement. We can never truly say we “know” that all that occurs in this world is correct and an execution of G-d’s justice. All the same, Hillel, perhaps the greatest scholar of a great generation, used this certainly unnerving incident to reaffirm his own pure and simple faith in G-d’s justice — beyond even his comprehension. And our Sages felt it worthwhile to record Hillel’s reflections. Let all future generations know that even the greatest among us could not really explain the injustices he saw around him. In the most general way, yes, but no one can truly fathom G- d’s inscrutable ways. Nevertheless, Hillel accepted. He recognized his own limitations, took in the lesson, reaffirmed his faith, and most importantly, he moved on.
There is an even deeper truth behind Hillel’s statement as noted by the commentators. Hillel saw reward and punishment as not just some Divine act of retribution but as a cause-and-effect cycle. There is an interconnectivity between people and deeds in this world. One who commits a good or bad deed not only deserves reward or punishment but brings about a change in this world. This is true firstly in the most literal sense. Do a favor for your fellow or give him a cheerful greeting, and you will spread good cheer in this world — which your fellow will in turn spread to others. Conversely, introduce violence to your environs — kill another human being, start a gang war — and rage and callousness will be introduced. Respect for human life will deteriorate — and you yourself may become victim to the forces you have unleashed.
But there is a much deeper aspect to this — on the level of the metaphysical. The physical and spiritual planes of reality are interconnected in ways we cannot possibly know or understand. A person’s good or evil deed affects the spiritual and physical environment around him. Good strengthens the bonds connecting the physical world to the spiritual, causing the spiritual light of G-d’s Presence to be more evident in this world. Conversely, evil disrupts the bonds between the spiritual and physical, quite literally making the world a more evil place. Thus, if a man murders, he creates a very real spiritual force of evil in this world. That force unleashed harms both the spiritual and physical layers of reality about. And it will attack those most susceptible to its influences.
And no one is more vulnerable than the creator of the evil himself.
The victim was quite likely a murderer himself — and his murderers will meet the same fate themselves — for this is the direct result and by- product of evil unrestrained. Perpetrate evil in this world, make this world just a little bit less holy, and it may just come back to haunt you.
On this level, punishment is not simply some Divine decree — some magical promise of retribution for your sins. It is the very literal result of the evil you have perpetrated. There are spiritual laws of nature in this world every bit as much as there are physical. And this is what Hillel truly comes to teach us. He saw in this chance encounter the spiritual forces beyond which both initiated and were perpetuating this vicious cycle of violence. Violence begets violence, making the world ever a more violent place. Therefore, let none of us say his own behavior is his own personal business and should be of no concern to others. The Talmud writes, “All of Israel is responsible for one another” (Shavuos 39a). We all share this world together, and we all influence and are influenced by one another. Let us all strive together to make it a place of peace, G- dliness and the Divine Presence.