Page 24 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 4

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scribed on pain of death. The heroic stuff of which the “Doctors
of the Talmud” were made is hauntingly pictured in the narrative
describing how Rabbi Hanina met his death. When arrested by
the Romans and questioned why he persisted in the unlawful
endeavor of studying the Torah, he defiantly replied: “Because
God commanded me to do so.” He was sentenced to be burned
alive and, in order to prolong the death agony, the Romans
wrapped him in the Torah Scroll, the
corpus delicti
, placing tufts
of wool soaked in water on his chest. But Rabbi Hanina ben
Teradyon did not demean himself by betraying any fear or weak-
ness. When he was about to be led onto the pyre, he consoled
his daughter: “ If I were to be burned alone, it would be hard to
bear. But now that the Torah Scroll is to be burned with me, He
who will avenge His own humiliation of the burning of the Scroll
will also avenge my humiliation.” And even when the flames had
seared his flesh and he was about to die, the Rabbi remained a
hero. His last words were: “Only the sheets of the Scroll are
burned — the letters are soaring upwards.” (Aboda Zara, 17b. f.)
Even greater heroism was shown by Rabbi Akiba, the enthus-
iastic supporter of the ill-fated Bar-Kochba revolt. The Talmud
records that when Rabbi Akiba was executed, the Romans*combed
his flesh with iron combs, yet no complaint escaped his lips, as
he recited the “Hear, O Israel.” When his disciples, who witnessed
the ghastly scene, asked him whether the Torah requires one to
go that far in endurance, he replied: “All my days I worried that
I did not fulfill the text ‘And thou shalt love the Lord thy God
with all thy soul,’ that is to say, even when He take thy soul. I
used to wonder: When shall I be able to fulfill it? And now that
the opportunity has come, shall I not fulfill it?” (Berakhot 61b).
Thus dies a hero, unafraid of pain and death — a hero, we
emphasize, and not a
martyr. I t is characteristic of this
type of Jewish “heroism” that the quest for other-worldly reward
was totally absent from it. A Midrashic elaboration of the story
of the three valiant challengers of Babylonian idolatry, Hananiah,
Mishael and Azariah, proves this rather forcefully: The Midrash
has it that the three companions of Daniel would not accept the
Prophet Ezekiel’s advice to go into hiding to escape punishment
for the refusal of worshipping the idol. Instead, they chided the
Prophet, “Should people say that all nations worshipped the idol?
. . . We want to degrade it by not bowing to it, so that they shall
say that all nations worshipped the idol, except Israel.” Anxious,
Ezekiel pleaded with them to wait at least until he would inquire
of God regarding their fate. But the Lord refused to exert Himself
on behalf of the three whose pious merit was eclipsed by the col-
lective guiltjof Israel.