The Rabbi Who Juggled Fire

Image: Rabban Gamliel was famous for juggling lit torches during the Sukkot celebrations in the Temple. (Sukkah 53b) (Vagengeim / Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

When I was a little child, I would read history and think enviously, “That must have been exciting – I wish I had a time machine!” Now that I’m older, and I’ve lived through a few such times, I know better. It is frightening and draining to hang on as the world seems to spin out of control. We in the United States are living through a simultaneous replay of 1918, 1929, and 1968, with a few added extras.

For me, study has been a refuge. I’ve been teaching and preparing classes nonstop, working harder and longer hours than I have done in years. I’m learning new material in order to be able to teach it. I’m co-teaching two other classes, and find comfort in the partnership with colleagues. I think of the generations of rabbis who have served the Jewish people during terrible times, and I know in my kishkes (Yiddish for guts) that Torah sustained them too.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel used to say: on three things does the world stand: On justice, on truth and on peace, as it is said: “execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates” (Zechariah 8:16).

Pirkei Avot 1:18

Shimon ben Gamaliel (10 BCE – 70 CE) lived during the run-up to the First Jewish Revolt. He was the president of the Great Sanhedrin during his last years, and he died when the Romans beheaded him, along with the High Priest, Ishmael ben Elisha. Rabban Shimon saw his world disintegrate through terrible divisions in Jewish society and under the cruel rule of Rome.

It is interesting that this, likely his most famous quotation, is a drash on a verse from the prophet Zechariah. Zechariah lived in a very different time, a time of rebuilding. He wrote after the Exile in Babylon was over, after Cyrus of Persia authorized a return to Israel and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. Zechariah did not live in an idyllic time (see the books of Ezra and Nehemiah for details) but it was a time of building, not of destruction.

What I learn from this is that one way to survive terrible times is to remember that history is full of cycles: some live in troubled times and some live in times of rebuilding. We can use the memory of better times to guide us forward towards better times in the future.

I’m not talking about “the good old days,” some idealized past. I’m talking about looking back for the values that brought out the best in us. Shimon ben Gamaliel looked back to a time when the guiding values were justice, truth, and peace:

  • Justice: that none should be treated as less than others.
  • Truth: that there is such a thing as truth.
  • Peace: not the absence of disagreement, but the presence of justice and truth, so that the world can be built instead of torn down.

We are living in a time like Shimon’s time, in a society polarized to its limit and beyond. The federal government of the United States is pursuing policies that bring out the worst in people, and that prey upon the weakest among us. The line between facts and opinion seems to have disappeared for many people. Peace is nowhere to be found.

I cannot guarantee that things will improve. I can’t promise that they won’t get worse. What I can say for sure is that the Jewish people have been through bad times in the past, and that the sages of the past can offer us guidance. Shimon suggests that justice and truth make peace possible, even in the darkest of times.

May we work for justice.

May we tell the truth.

May the world – our world – know a true peace, a peace based on justice and truth.

And let us say, Amen.

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rabbiadar

Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at https://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Hamaqom | The Place in Berkeley, CA.

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