Out of the shadows and into the light

The story opens: I was once traveling on the road and I entered one of the ruins of Jerusalem to pray.

August 14, 2019 17:49
Out of the shadows and into the light

‘HE IS wandering alone in the ruin... missing the deeper, truer experience of connection from community participation in ongoing acts of worship.’. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In the Talmud (Brachot) a story is told by the great Tanna Rabbi Yossi, who lived in the century after the destruction of the Second Temple. Rabbi Yossi was a student of Rabbi Akiba. However, while his teacher Akiba laughed when he saw foxes running through the ruins of the Temple Moment, for he saw in that moment the future redemption when the Jews would return to the streets of Jerusalem, fulfilling the prophecy of Zecharia, Rabbi Yossi is mired in the enormous loss suffered by the nation only a short time ago.

The story opens: I was once traveling on the road and I entered one of the ruins of Jerusalem to pray.

The story has a “once upon a time”-like quality. We think that Rabbi Yossi happens to be traveling to some unknown destination and, as it came time to pray, he turned aside by chance into a ruin to seclude himself in prayer.

However, Rabbi Yossi cannot be casually and unwittingly coming upon a ruin in Jerusalem since in the aftermath of the Bar-Kochba rebellion, Jews were barred by the Romans from entering the city. His journey, which has no stated purpose, is deliberately toward this site of destruction.

The story continues that Elijah the Prophet comes and protects Rabbi Yossi while he prays in the ruin. When the prayer is finished, Elijah presents himself as a wise elder and engages in a question-and-answer dialogue about the halachic integrity of the sage’s actions.

Rabbi Yossi, in keeping with his character, pays the old man respect by addressing him as teacher and master and honestly answers his questions.

In the end, he acknowledges that he has learned three new halachot that directly contradict his own behavior: I learned that one should not enter a ruin; and I learned that one may not pray on the road; and I learned that one who prays on the road should pray an abridged prayer.

After Rabbi Yossi accepts this implicit criticism, Elijah reveals himself to be the famed prophet. In doing so, he also divulges the true reason that the Tanna has traveled to the ruin:

And Elijah said to me: “My son, what sound did you hear when you were in this ruin?”
And I said to him, “I heard a heavenly voice that was crying like a dove, and she was saying: ‘Woe to Me because I destroyed my House and burned my Temple and exiled my son among the nations of the world.’”

Rabbi Yossi, who lived 100 years after the destruction, has come to hear this heavenly voice express pain and regret over the fate that God has bestowed upon the Jewish nation. He is one of the very few who knows that this voice exists and can be heard if you enter a ruin. However, to make this journey, he separated himself from family, community and the beit midrash, risking danger to return to the scene of destruction and suffuse himself in the loss and emptiness. He is desperate to hear this expression of suffering on the part of God that makes manifest his own visceral pain.

Elijah validates his experience and lets him know that if he is looking to hear the heavenly voice cry in pain over the destruction, he can actually hear it three times a day, parallel to the lost sacrifices that will no longer be brought. In essence, one can enter a ruin and become submerged in the weight of mourning for what will never return. However, Elijah is not done. He has something more urgent to tell Rabbi Yossi:

But at the time that the people of Israel do the Will of God and enter the synagogues and houses of study and answer “Amen, may His great name be blessed,” the Holy One, blessed be He, shakes his head and says: “Fortunate is the king who is praised in his house. Woe to the sons who have been exiled from their father’s table.”

Elijah turns to Rabbi Yossi and tells him that there is so much more than the endless immutable cry of grief. While he is in the ruin, the less literate and educated people, who know nothing of the heavenly voice, are entering the houses of study and prayer. When they raise their voices and say “Amen” and proclaim God’s name, there is a far more thunderous response in heaven than the thin piteous cry of the dove. The sacrificial priestly cult has been replaced by the people continuing to act in service to God every day, multiple times a day, in prayer and Torah study.

God shakes His head in amazed acknowledgment. The king, always a metaphor for God, is being praised in His house, which is no longer the centrally located Temple but, rather, every house of study and every house of prayer. The sons who are exiled exist in some distant past. It is those who acclaim Him that remain in the foreground.

This is the message that Elijah gives to Rabbi Yossi. He is wandering alone in the ruin, and while he is privileged to hear an expression of the Divine, he is missing the deeper, truer experience of connection and growth that takes place when families and communities participate in ongoing acts of worship.

Although Zecharia’s prophecy has been realized, we are nonetheless still acutely aware that the shadows of death and destruction ever linger. However, as Tisha Be’av is behind us and we begin to move toward the months of Elul and Tishrei, we must remember that we can continuously move from despair to joy and from exile to redemption by the actions that we take and the choices that we make.

The writer teaches contemporary Halacha at the Matan Advanced Talmud Institute. She also teaches Talmud at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies along with courses on sexuality and sanctity in the Jewish tradition.

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