Out of the suffering of the Bar Kochba holocaust Jewish leaders emerged who made it possible for the Jewish people to survive into the long night of exile.
After the demise of Bar Kochba the Jews prepared themselves for a long exile. Indeed, had Hadrian lived longer there is no telling what would have happened with the Jewish people. However, in 141 CE he died and was succeeded by someone diametrically opposite him, a kind and gentle person called Antoninus Pius.
Had the decrees and attitude of Hadrian continued unabated with his successors then the Jews may never have survived.
The Enigmatic Rabbi Meir
Jewish history – any history – is a history of people. The dates, places and events are only to give Social Studies teachers a chance to mark a test paper. They do not tell the story of the world. The story of the world – the real story – is the story of people. Even more so the story of the Jewish world.
Rabbi Meir, disciple of Rabbi Akiva and leader after his death, was one of the most enigmatic figures in Jewish history. We do not even know his real name. The Talmud says that his name was Rabbi Nehorai or Rabbi Nehemiah. The reason he was called Meir is because the Hebrew word “Meir” means to emit light; he brought a great deal of light to the rabbis. In truth, we do not know what his real name was. Indeed, he exists in a veil of anonymity.
Jewish tradition tells us that he was descended from non-Jews (as was Rabbi Akiva). As we discussed previously, there was a tremendous influx of Jewish converts during these few centuries when Rome was at her mightiest. The best of the non-Jewish world came into Judaism. Therefore, it is not surprising that in very short period of time many of the great leaders of the Jewish world were either converts or the descendants of converts.
Rabbi Meir was the greatest man of his generation, the Talmud tells us. He formed the bridge from this post-Holocaust generation, so to speak, to the next generation, the generation of Rabbi Judah the Prince, redactor of the Mishnah.
The Talmud said that there was no one equal to Rabbi Meir in Torah knowledge. Nevertheless, the law does not follow his opinion because no one could understand it. He was too great to comprehend. Too deep.
The Rabbi who became an Agnostic
Rabbi Meir was the student of another enigmatic personality mentioned in the Talmud, Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah, the only great man of the Talmud to lose his faith. The Talmud offers several stories in an attempt to explain it.
Once he saw a man crawl out on the limb of a tree to fulfill the commandment of sending away the mother bird from the nest before taking the egg, which the Torah says is rewarded with “length of days.” However, the man slipped off the limb and died. Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah could not reconcile what he saw. In essence, he was tripped up by the classic question of why do bad things happen to good people.
We survive because we never think about it. We don’t think too much about anything. Therefore, life poses no problems. Of course, sometimes, God forbid, a tragedy occurs with no easy answers. A good, kind person leaves over orphans, God forbid. How does one justify that?
Of course, God is righteous. It’s just that it does not make sense to us. We cannot figure Him out.
Another story about Elisha ben Abuyah is that he saw the Romans behead his teacher, Rabbi Chutzpis, who was known as the man of the golden tongue. Rabbi Chutzpis was a great orator. When Elisha ben Abuyah saw his tongue roll in the dust he cracked. How could that happen to a man whose tongue only spoke Torah?
In short, Elisha ben Abuyah saw Auschwitz and he could not bear it.
After he abandoned Judaism the rabbis gave him a name, “Acher,” which means, “Another.” He was no long Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah they used to know. He became a different person.
Most of the rabbis avoided him because he was a bad influence, but But Rabbi Meir used to learn Torah with him. When they asked Rabbi Meir how he could do that he answered, “I ate the inside of the fruit and threw away the peel.”
The Talmud records incredible conversations between Rabbi Meir and Acher. They were once walking on the Sabbath together and reached the boundary beyond which an observant Jew was allowed to walk. Acher said to Rabbi Meir, “Return back.”
“My teacher,” Rabbi Meir replied, “you also turn back.” He was alluding to more than just literally turning around and not going past the physical boundary. He was telling him to repent, to come back to his people, to God, to his senses.
Acher replied, “But I heard from a heavenly voice say that even the most wayward Jews can come back to God – except from Elisha ben Abuyah.”
He felt he was doomed. As an aside, many commentators say that while the heavenly voice he heard was real it was actually a test to see if he would return for the purest of reasons, without expectation of acceptance or reward. That would have made up for his mistakes.
In any event, Rabbi Meir remained a fierce defender of his teacher until the end. When Elisha ben Abuyah died Rabbi Meir believed he had repented. However, when they buried him they saw fire coming out of his grave, which was obviously a bad sign.
Rabbi Meir spread his tallis (prayer shawl) over the grave and prayed on his teacher’s behalf. In essence, he noted how the world is night; it is black. There are always unanswered questions. It contains cruelties that cannot be explained. Terrible things happen in the night called this world. In the night we have no answers. Nevertheless, in the morning, when the sun rises – in the World to Come – we will see things clearly, Rabbi Meir added.
Then Rabbi Meir remarked, “If God will redeem you, my teacher, good. If not, however, then I will redeem you.”
This remarkable statement is the Talmud’s way to teaching that the actions of one’s disciples affect the soul of the teacher even after it has departed this world. In other words, even if the person’s deeds are not enough to earn redemption on their own it can be won for him, so to speak, when the deeds of his disciples (or children) are added to the equation.
The Master of the Miracle
Rabbi Meir is sometimes referred to in the Talmud as Rabbi Meir Baal HaNess. Baal HaNess means, “Master of the Miracle.” The story behind that appendage to his name is told in the Talmud.
After the destruction of Beitar and the terrible decrees of Hadrian ten great sages were executed. One was Rabbi Meir’s father-in-law, Rabbi Hannaniah ben Tradyon, who was wrapped in a Torah scroll and burned alive. As part of the attempt to destroy the Jewish scholars and their families, the Romans took the daughter of Rabbi Hannaniah ben Tradyon and impressed into service in a house of ill-repute.
At the urging of his wife, Beruriah, Rabbi Meir went to see what he could do to redeem her. He discovered where the Romans had placed her, disguised himself as a patron and asked specifically for her. She did not recognize him and made all sorts of excuses why she would be unable to accommodate him. Rabbi Meir saw from that that spiritually she had not been compromised. Then he told her who he was and promised to get her out.
This was a consistent trait in Rabbi Meir. He was not fazed by things. If he could tell his teacher that he would get him out of hell into heaven, then he could take his sister-in-law out of the brothel.
He found the Roman keeper of the house and offered him a bribe to release the girl into his custody. In the strange logic of Roman “morality” the keeper told him that he would be happy to sell him the girl but that the Romans kept count and if one of them was missing he would lose his life. It was not worth the money.
Rabbi Meir told him that he would give him a secret incantation that would protect him. The Roman did not believe him. He had two very large ferocious guard dogs and Rabbi Meir offered to prove it to him with the dogs. Let the dogs loose on him, Rabbi Meir offered. The Roman was happy to accommodate him.
As the dogs leaped at him Rabbi Meir said, “God of Meir, answer me!” We have to understand who Rabbi Meir was and how real God was to him. The dogs fell away from him. Rabbi Meir told him the Roman that if the authorities came for him he should say those words, “God of Meir, answer me!” The Roman took the money and Rabbi Meir took his sister-in-law.
Indeed, one day the Romans came to the keeper and took inventory. When they found one missing they took him away to be executed. Then he said, “God of Meir, answer me!” Suddenly, all of the guards fell away and he escaped. He converted and became a Jew.
After that incident became public people began calling Rabbi Meir, “Rabbi Meir Baal HaNess.” That is why there is a famous charity today called the charity of “Rabbi Meir Baal HaNess.” On the back of the charity box is the famous words, “God of Meir, answer me!” The idea is that if you put money in the box and say the words, “God of Meir, answer me!” you can look forward to miracles. This charity began in the 18th century and came to have such a mass appeal that it is still going strong today.
A World Ebbing Away
Rabbi Meir was married to one of the great women of the Talmud, one of the great women of all time: Beruriah. The Talmud tells us that when Rabbi Meir could not deliver the lecture in synagogue she put up a curtain and said it over.
Yet, these two incomparably great people had a very hard life together, a life of terrible tragedies – one upon the other. They had children who died. They went into exile. They had misunderstandings between themselves. According to some versions, she committed suicide because of a misunderstanding.
Left alone, Rabbi Meir departed the Holy Land and died broken on the coast of Turkey in Asia Minor. His last words were, “Bury me by the seashore, because the waters that brush the coast this land are the waters that brush the Holy Land, and those who are attached to something that is holy are holy.”
There is a legend that Rabbi Meir is buried in Tiberias. However, that is probably not true, although it makes for good tourism. The Talmud, however, tells us that he was buried in Turkey.
In short, stories of the generation that experienced the “Holocaust” of Roman wrath during Bar Kochba’s defeat contain all the human problems imaginable. Simultaneously, it produced leaders for all time. These were the people who constructed the basic floor for Jewish life after the loss of independence.
Like Rabbi Meir who died on the shores of the Mediterranean, this generation was connected to and formed a bridge from a world ebbing away to a new world with new challenges flowing inward. Their connection is what made it possible for the Jewish people to survive its exile.