Alas, the Rabbi was Silent

Dr. Channa Pinchasi discusses the a midrash in Eicha Rabbah, relating to relationships between the Raban Gamliel, his students the laymen of that time. What is the message for us today?

There’s a very short story in Lamentations Rabbah which, for some years, has stirred in me great sorrow about the Hurban (destruction). This is how it goes: “There’s a story about a woman in Rabban Gamliel’s neighborhood whose young son died, and who cried for him at night. When Rabban Gamliel would hear her voice he would remember the destruction of the Second Temple and he’d cry along with her until his eyelashes would fall out. His students were concerned about him and therefore removed the woman from his neighborhood.”

The pithiness of the story, which consists primarily of missing details, forces us to use our imaginations to fill in the gaps. The story opens with a woman who is bereaved of her young son and mourns his loss, weeping at night. Does she only cry at night, or is it that just the only time that her crying is heard? Hearing her crying through the walls, Rabban Gamliel remembers the destruction of the Temple and he, too, weeps bitter tears. Through her, he feels his own bereavement, connects to the pain within himself, the stinging loss of the destruction: “…he would remember the destruction of the Second Temple.” But did he ever see the woman? Did he know who or what she was crying for? It’s not revealed in the story. Her personal pain over the loss of her son is extended into his weeping for the larger, national tragedy.

From so much crying, Rabban Gamliel’s eyelashes fall out. (Did the woman’s eyelashes also fall out?) How long did his weeping, which was a continuation of her nightly weeping, continue? Weeks? Months? Perhaps more? As readers, we need to decide. “His students were concerned about him.” What raised their concern? Perhaps because Rabban Gamliel could not concentrate, or maybe he suddenly appeared older than his age, and they felt that something was wrong. Maybe it was because of his missing eyelashes. Unprotected eyes can be a little frightening.

After some point, it grew clear to the students, a group of young men, that they must put an end to this weeping. So they acted immediately to “remove[d] the woman from his neighborhood.” Problem solved, end of story. “His neighborhood” – not “her neighborhood”. They have the power to remove her. But where is Rabban Gamliel? Did he wonder why the weeping ceased? Did he miss it? Did he ask about her? The silence of the story hints that he didn’t. Did the woman know what happened, why they evicted her from her home? (Maybe she had also assumed that Jews do not evict Jews.)

This is a sad story, but also a sharply critical one. It describes erasure of the boundary between the woman’s personal loss of her own dead son and the religious, national and communal loss of the destruction of the Temple. Rabban Gamliel experiences the Hurban through the woman, but does not relate to her, even when she is suddenly gone. Or at least, the midrash does not choose to tell us.

Injustice Returns to the World

The strong critique conveyed by the story becomes clearer when we zoom out to consider its context – the start of the Book of Lamentations, its opening verses: “Alas! Lonely sits the city once great with people! She that was great among nations is become like a widow… Bitterly she weeps in the night, her cheek wet with tears. There is none to comfort her of all her friends.” Here she is, in the book -- the bereaved mother of the story – Zion herself! A woman who sits alone, like a widow with tears on her cheeks, and has no one to comfort her. Instantly, the nameless woman of the story is transformed into the personification of the city and the people who are right there, just beyond the wall. You can even hear her, if you listen. The students seem to be evicting Zion from the neighborhood, that same Zion whose loss Rabban Gamliel is mourning.

This miniature story conveys, subtly, that the iniquity for which the city was destroyed returns time and again after the Hurban – even, ironically, as a direct result of how we cope with it. Apparently, there’s no need for baseless hatred, or Kamtza and Bar Kamtza: The strong-arm tactics of students who cannot see the larger picture, and a great rabbi who remains silent suffice. During this period between 17 Tammuz and 9 B’Av, it’s comforting to know that the Rabbis were courageous in noting their own shortcomings and those of their students.

 

Who are today’s students, who chase people from the community? Perhaps Haredim who set trash bins on fire but fail to notice a mother’s distress? Or youths who uproot olive trees and chase people from their fields? I’m also thinking about communities who glare angrily at “deviant” sons and chase them away. Now, for just a moment, I’ll stop blaming others and ask myself when I’ve ousted people from my community without truly listening to their cries. And maybe in doing so, the path to redemption will open before us.

 

Translation by Tova Osofsky