The Terror of Greatness-Kinah 29
“Demons turn against me; evil chases away my nobility like the wind; my salvation has drifted away like a cloud (Job 30:15).” Rabbi Chanina said, the Community of Israel spoke before the Holy One, Blessed is He, “in the past I terrorized others, as it is stated, ‘ They hastened (bahal means both to hasten and to frighten) to bring Haman (Esther 6:14),’ and another verse has, ‘ I will make you a terror, and you will be no more (Ezekiel 26:21) [this verse refers to Tyre; the midrash reads it as, ‘ I will make you, Tyre, filled with terror inspired by Israel.’] And it is also stated, ‘ Then were the chiefs of Edom terrified (Exodus 15:15).’
But now, terror is turned upon me.”
Rabbi Acha compared this to the segment of a column which rolls along in an open space until it knocks against a stone and stops by it (so too, terrors rolled through the world, and, having struck Israel, stopped by him.) Thus it is written, “Upon me Your wrath weighed down, and You have afflicted me with all Your crushing waves (Psalms 88:8).” [Midrash Eichah 1.1.1]
The introductory verse from the Book of Job, describes how Job, cast into deepest desperation, sees a fleeting vision of his hoped for rescue sailing off from him like a cloud.
The verse from Esther describes how Haman, after having experienced the great honor of being the only person other than the king invited to Esther’s parties only to suffer the shame of having to parade his archenemy Mordechai through the streets of the capital, aware that his lucky streak has ended and his end is approaching, is rushed in his confusion to attend Esther’s party. He is a man lost and confused, not knowing what to expect next. The man who was second only to the King, has lost his bearings.
This same terror is experienced by Israel as they suffer the crushing defeat by the Babylonians, still clinging to their hopes as the people who once lived with the Temple in their midst. It is the terror of someone who experience is greatness and the lowest of lows. It is the terror of someone who has no idea what to expect next.
The verse from Ezekiel describes how Israel was once perceived as such a great power that even those who were not threatened by them were terrified.
The midrash is teaching us that the exiles understood that it was their very greatness that led to their current suffering. The exiles understood that as long as they would be measured by their greatness, they would continue to suffer for having failed in living up to that greatness. They were terrorized by their own greatness.
The final verse, that from the Song of the Sea, describes how the miracles God performed for Israel terrorized all those who did not stand with them. Israel is now experiencing the same terror suffered by the Edomites when they heard of the splitting of the Sea and the drowning of the Egyptians.
The midrash is telling us that Israel acknowledged that their devastating defeat was clearly an expression of God’s Power, the same power expressed at the Splitting of the Sea, and they wondered whether there were more such expressions of His power to come against them.
“Rabbi Acha compared this to the segment of a column which rolls along in an open space until it knocks against a stone and stops by it,” a segment of a column, not the column itself. A ruling, not anything more than a memory of greatness. The people understand that the power unleashed against them is only because they are ruins of what they once were, no longer a reflection of God’s presence on the Earth.
In Kinah #29, that which laments the atrocities suffered by the Jews during the first Crusade, focuses not only on lost greatness, but the consequences of forfeiting that greatness, of not living up to our potential. We begin to experience the same devastating terror that others experienced when God took us out of Egypt, split the Sea, led us through the desert for forty years, opened up the waters the Jordan River, and empowered us to conquer Canaan.
Yet, the very fact that we are able to connect our terror to that which our enemies suffered when we stood at our highest, indicates how real that greatness still is in our minds. We experience the terror of the broken column, yet we still see the column whole and strong, standing as part of a magnificent structure. That structure still lives in our minds. Our potential as a nation is still real in our hearts. We understand that the greatness and potential are demanding. We use this Kinah to bemoan the terror we experience when we acknowledge that we are failing to live up to that potential.
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