Kinah 23: A Fight For Dignity
This Kinah is based on the Talmud (Gittin 58a):
Our Rabbis have taught: R. Joshua b. Hananiah once happened to go to the great city of Rome, and he was told there that there was in the prison a Jewish child with beautiful eyes and face and curly locks.
He went and stood at the doorway of the prison and said, “Who gave Jacob for a spoil and Israel to the robbers?” (Isaiah 42:24) The child answered, “Is it not the Lord, He against whom we have sinned and in whose ways they would not walk, neither were they obedient unto his law.” (Ibid.)
He said: I feel sure that this one will be a teacher in Israel. I swear that I will not budge from here before I ransom him, whatever price may be demanded. It is reported that he did not leave the spot before he had ransomed him at a high figure, nor did many days pass before he became a teacher in Israel.
Who was he? — He was R. Ishmael b. Elisha.
(What happened to Rabbi Ishmael?)
Rab Judah said in the name of Rab: It is related that the son and the daughter of R. Ishmael b. Elisha were carried off [and sold to] two masters.
Some time after the two (Roman masters) met together, and one said, “I have a slave the most beautiful in the world.” The other said, “I have a female slave the most beautiful in the world.” They said: “Let us marry them to one another and share the children.”
They put them in the same room. The boy sat in one corner and the girl in another.
He said: “I am a priest descended from high priests, and shall I marry a bondwoman?”
She said: “I am a priestess descended from high priests, and shall I be married to a slave?”
So they passed all the night in tears.
When the day dawned they recognized one another and fell on one another’s necks and bemoaned themselves with tears until their souls departed.
For them Jeremiah utters lamentation, “For these I am weeping, mine eye, mine eye drops water.” (Lamentations 1:16)
The tragedy is horrible. Their heroics are inspiring. However, there are deeper levels to this story:
The young Rabbi Yishmael is saved by Rabbi Joshua because the young Jewish boy, imprisoned in Rome, maintained his connection to God and Torah. His commitment lived on in his son and daughter, who, in the face of death, refused to dishonor their honored position as descendants of Kohanim. Jerusalem lay in ruins. The Temple was destroyed. They were slaves in Rome, yet they would not let go of their honored positions. The world looked at them with disdain. They perceived themselves as honored people, and risked their lives to preserve the honor of the Kehuna, which still waits, almost two thousand years later to assume its proper role in God’s home.
Their situation was horrible, but the greater tragedy is the loss of such a powerful commitment to our honor as Jews.
Rabbi Yishmael’s children did not restrain themselves because of Halacha, but because they understood that they had to risk all to preserve the dignity of Israel, especially the Kehuna.
We live in a world in which we are constantly bombarded with messages that contradict our laws, values, and dignity. We hear leaders urging us to maintain Halacha. Rabbi Yishmael’s children do not speak of law, but of dignity. “I am a child of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; shall I lower myself to act in such a manner?”
When we demand observance and fail to echo the message of this young boy and girl, Jeremiah weeps, “For these I am weeping, mine eye, mine eye drops water.”
When we fail to inspire our children with such pride in their identity, Jeremiah laments, “For these I am weeping, mine eye, mine eye drops water.”
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