QUESTION: The Gemara relates that Nechunya, the "Chofer Shichin" (digger of water wells), had a son who died of thirst. The Gemara says that even though Nechunya dedicated his life to providing water to the people who came to Yerushalayim during the festivals, his son died of thirst because Hash-m is "Medakdek k'Chut ha'Se'arah" with the righteous. When a person has perfected himself in an area of Avodas Hash-m, Hash-m demands from him more exacting standards.
The Gemara then relates that a certain Chasid, who used to dig water wells to provide water for travelers, had a daughter who was tragically swept away by a river while she was on the way to her wedding. (From the words of the Bavli in Bava Kama (50a), it appears that this Chasid was Nechunya himself.) Rebbi Pinchas ben Yair prayed to Hash-m and said, "Is it possible that this person honored his Creator with water, and now his Creator punishes him with water?" At that moment, a commotion was heard in the city as the daughter returned safe and sound.
If Hash-m indeed does not punish a person with the same thing in which he excels in his service of Hash-m, as Rebbi Pinchas ben Yair expressed and as the second incident demonstrates, then why did Hash-m allow Nechunya's son to die of thirst?
(a) TOSFOS in Bava Kama (50a) and Yevamos (121b) explains that since Nechunya excelled in providing water for others, the fact that his son died of thirst is not considered a form of justice with the same thing with which Nechunya excelled. His son suffered from a lack of water, while Nechunya excelled in providing water. However, if his daughter would have died by drowning in a flood of water, that decree would have been carried out with the same action in which Nechunya excelled -- providing water, and Hash-m does not punish a person in such a way.
Alternatively, Nechunya dug wells, but he did not provide the water to fill them. The water came naturally through rainfall. Accordingly, it was possible for his son to die from a lack of water, while it was not possible for his daughter to die in the pit of a well. (This is the explanation of RASHI in Yevamos (121b, DH Chofer Shichin), according to the understanding of the ETZ YOSEF there. This explanation does not conform with the Yerushalmi's description that "he honored his Creator with water.")
(b) The SHITAH MEKUBETZES in Bava Kama (50a) suggests that there is no such rule that Hash-m does not exact justice from a person with the object of the Mitzvah in which that person excels. Hash-m has His own considerations based on His infinite wisdom which we cannot comprehend.
In the case of the Gemara here, Rebbi Pinchas ben Yair offered a prayer to Hash-m on behalf of the Chasid's daughter. Rebbi Pinchas ben Yair's prayer aroused Hash-m's mercy, and Nechunya's daughter was saved. His son, however, died of thirst after Rebbi Pinchas ben Yair had passed away, and thus his prayer was no longer effective.
REBBI ELIYAHU FULDA adds that this might be the intention of the Yerushalmi when it says that his daughter was saved by an angel that had the appearance of Rebbi Pinchas ben Yair. Since she was saved in the merit of his prayer on her behalf, the force that saved her manifested itself in the likeness of Rebbi Pinchas ben Yair. In fact, it is possible that this is the difference between the two descriptions offered by the Yerushalmi as to how the daughter was saved. The opinion that says that she was saved by a branch maintains that Hash-m never punishes the righteous with the object in which they excel. The opinion that says that she was saved by an angel with the likeness of Rebbi Pinchas maintains that she was saved only as a result of the intervention of Rebbi Pinchas. (KORBAN HA'EDAH; ETZ YOSEF to Yevamos 121b)
(c) The MISHNAS ELIYAHU explains that the principle that Hash-m does not permit harm to befall a person from the object of the Mitzvah in which he excels applies only if that person performs the Mitzvah entirely l'Shem Shamayim, for the sake of Hash-m with no other motives. When a person performs a Mitzvah in that way, the object of that Mitzvah cannot harm him. When Nechunya's daughter was swept away by the torrent, Nechunya was fulfilling the Mitzvah of providing water for the travelers entirely l'Shem Shamayim. Hence, his daughter was saved. However, perhaps at a later time, he had in mind other motives and he did not do the Mitzvah solely for the sake of Hash-m. At that time, his son died of thirst. In that respect, Hash-m was "Medakdek k'Chut ha'Se'arah" with the righteous.