Posts Tagged ‘Romans’

Midrash Eleh Ezkerah is a dramatized narrative describing (with poetic license) the tragic executions of ten of Israel’s greatest sages at the hands of the Romans. The story depicts these ten as having lived contemporaneously and having been executed more or less in the same time and place, though this was not actually the case.

Nevertheless, in this work, the body of the sage Rabbi Akiva is carried by Elijah the Prophet. Elijah meets Rabbi Yehoshua haGarsi, who asks Elijah how he could carry Akiva’s dead body when Elijah is a Kohen, and a Kohen is forbidden to come into contact with a dead body, lest he become tamei — spiritually contaminated. Elijah replies, “The bodies of the righteous do not render spiritual contamination.”

It appears that the author of this narrative was of the opinion that Elijah was a Kohen, and therefore would line up with the opinion that Elijah was in fact Pinchas.

The Talmud (Gitin 56B) records a catastrophic incident in Jewish history that took place when the Romans destroyed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

When Titus (then general, son of Emperor Vespasian, later Emperor himself) entered the Holy of Holies (inner sanctum of the Temple), among the revulsive acts of absolute desecration he performed there, he plunged his sword through the curtain that divided between the area containing the Holy Ark (holiest of Temple vessels) and the area containing the other holy vessels. When Titus did so, the Talmud records, blood miraculously spurted out from the cut, and Titus “thought he had killed [the Almighty] Himself.”

When I quoted this passage recently during a class, a student expressed [rightfully] his skepticism regarding the veracity of this story. I vindicated his sentiment, asking him to remain openminded in order to draw out the message the Sages meant to convey with this story. In fact, Maimonides is emphatic that one should treat such difficult passages metaphorically. What then, is the metaphor of the spurting blood?

Rabbi Shimshon Pincus, of blessed memory, asserts (in Nefesh Shimshon: Shabbos Kodesh) that even more troubling is the notion that Titus actually thought he had eliminated G-d himself! Could he be so weak a thinker to believe he had such power?

I would like to borrow from Rabbi Pincus’ explanation, with slight variation, to offer the following understanding.  “Death” ultimately means the abandonment by the soul of the body. When the soul “leaves,” the body “dies.” But the soul lives on! Death is not an absolute end. Titus interpreted his “victory” as a sign that G-d had abandoned the Jewish people as the soul leaves the body. The Torah teaches that “the blood is the spirit [of life],” therefore the forsaking of the Jewish people, the abandonment of the “body” of the nation by G-d, the “soul” of the nation, is represented by the spilling of blood.  However, Titus’ error was in his short-sightedness. To where does the blood flow? To the earth. This symbolizes that G-d has not abandoned the Jewish people, but has joined them in their lowly state. Like Obi-Wan Kenobi, in that famous scene from the original Star Wars, says to Darth Vader, “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine,” the Almighty (l’havdil) is not defeated, but, in our state of exile, has assured us He is with us upon whichever earth we stand, through all our ups and downs, until we shall return, may it be soon, to our Holy Land, where we will celebrate together the Glory of G-d.