You would not expect a meditation on the destruction of Jerusalem to be funny, but the classical midrash on Lamentations 1:1 contains a list of stories that almost certainly are trying to be funny [whether they succeed, depends on how much you like ancient humor…]. While the author of the book of Lamentations mourns about Jerusalem how, “She that was great among the nations…is now under another’s authority,” the authors of the midrash assume that this means that this was a nation that was great with wisdom, and they then collect about a dozen stories in which the inhabitants of Jerusalem outsmart visiting philosophers and other people coming to trick the Jews.
Part of mourning the loss of Jewish independence is mourning the free cultural expression and flourishing. The humor of the stories is both of a testament to some of that past acts of wit, but it also recognizes that creativity and humor can outlast national disaster. The last story, however, turns inward and describe how one of the rabbis, Rabbi Joshua realizes that he may not be as smart as he thought.
Rabbi Joshua, when walking the final few miles to a city finds himself at a crossroads. When he asks a young boy which way to go, he responds that one way is “close, but far,” and the other is “far, but close.” When Rabbi Joshua takes the “close, but far” way, he finds himself on an impassable path that brings him close to the city. When he turns, the boy cynically spouts off, “I told you so…” and Rabbi Joshua sheepishly takes the longer but accessible path into the city.
Once he arrives, he finds a girl that is drawing some water, and asks her for some. She gives water both to him and his donkey like Rebecca did for Abraham’s servant. When Rabbi Joshua compares her favorable to Rebecca, she deadpans that the rabbi is not acting like the servant who then showered Rebecca with gifts.
In the last part of the passage, Rabbi Joshua is a rude guest and forgets that he’s supposed to share part of his meal with a widowed innkeeper. In response, she over-salts a dish so that the rabbi only has a few bites. Once that happens, she’s able to suggest that instead of finding the food inedible, the he wants to giver her the appropriate portion. Looking back at these episodes, Rabbi Joshua claims that he has not been outsmarted in his life until he’s met these three people.
On its surface, this teaching celebrates how even the most surprising members of the society are able to outwit a learned man, but the nature of Rabbi Joshua’s missteps tell us more about the barriers and eventual path to redemption. In each situation, Rabbi Joshua comes off as self-centered. The desire to choose the shortest path for oneself no matter whose backyard you trample or whether it gets you there in the end reveals short sightedness. The way he accepted the water without anything to give in return shows how he viewed the good deed as something he fundamentally deserved instead of an act of unexpected kindness. Forgetting to give his host the food due to her was letting his own appetite get in the way of caring for others.
At the end of these events, Rabbi Joshua recognizes that his bias prevented him from believing that these unexpected people, but he stops short of considering how this expectation could have both been a cause of the societal collapse as well as a condition that prevents the society from truly healing. One reading of the traditional narratives about the destruction of Jerusalem came about because of ideological zealots preferring to burn their food stores to encourage making a last stand instead of lasting the Roman siege of Jerusalem. Even when one of the major scholars approached the leaders of the rebellion, the leader remarked that he had become too terrified of his own followers to follow the wise advice. The zealots were unable to believe that negotiating an end to the rebellion could have saved Jerusalem, and were willing to do more harm to their own people by following their dangerous path. Similarly, Rabbi Joshua was not looking for wisdom in unexpected places, so who knows how much wit and wisdom he missed in his life by only looking for those he already recognized as his peer.
There will be times when we want to reject someone’s opinion or ideas because they are explicitly bad, but many times, our desire to reject and push ideas away come from a sense of false self confidence or intolerant ideological purity. There is no question that our constant challenge is learning to tell the difference between fear based on real circumstances and fear based on our own stubbornness. Making this distinction means that we are better able to recognize and respond to real threats while using the difference of opinion to expand our own thinking to make us more open and creative thinkers.
In Israel, the fight to recognize religious pluralism is only becoming more bitter. This past week, Rabbi Dov Haiyn, a Conservative rabbi in Haifa was taken in for police questioning for officiating a wedding outside of the prevue of the state rabbinical authority. The controversies surrounding religious pluralism in Israel are far from new, but hearing about this new flash point so close to Tisha B’av casts in sharp relief the pain when a society is unable to appreciate the mutual wisdom within its different groups. Even a rabbi who was born in Israel, trained in Israel, and who serves a native Israeli community still appears as an outside agitator to the state sponsored rabbinate. As always, engaging with our tradition can help us to view the world with more openness and generosity, and through this sharing of ideas and vision, we hope to be able to build a vibrant Jewish society, but for this to happen, we have to expect others to recognize the wisdom we have to offer.