The Book of Lamentations traditionally attributed Jeremiah, the paradigmatic Prophet of Doom, poetically mourns the destruction of the Jerusalem, its Temple and the exile of Jews to Babylonia. It begins “How is it that she dwells alone, the city, once great with people, she that was great among the nations, Is become like a widow.”
In a classic micro reading, the Midrash asks: We’ve already been told that the city was great with people, what does “great among the nations” teach us?
It teaches that the people were great in wisdom. Rabbi Huna in the name of Rabbi Yossi said: Whenever a Jerusalemite would travel abroad, they would place him on a throne in order to hear his wisdom.
Once there was an older man who went abroad from Jerusalem. He stayed with friend there until he became ill. He entrusted his friend with the deeds to all his property and asked him to hold them in trust for his son. If his son demonstrated three acts of wisdom, his son would inherit, but if he didn’t do so, the man was instructed not to transfer the deeds to his son. They made a pact hat no one was to tell the son where this man lived. The son arrived in Athens, and knew the man’s name, but nothing else. He saw a man selling bundles of kindling, and asked the man if he would deliver the kindling to this man’s house, and then he followed from behind. The woodsman called out to the man and told him to take his wood. The man answered, “Did I order the wood from you?” The woodsman said ,”No, but the man behind me ordered me to deliver the wood to you.” That counts as one act of wisdom. The man went to greet the son and asked him who he was, and then immediately invited him in for a meal. The man brought his wife, his two sons and his two daughters for a midday meal. The main course was five cornish hens The man told the son to divide up the food among himself and the family. The son politely said that it was not his place to do so, but the man insisted.
The son gave one hen to the husband and wife. Then he gave one to the two sons, and one to the two daughters. He then kept the remaining two for himself. No one said a word.
That evening, the man brought out a large chicken and asked the son to divide it up among everyone. The son politely refused saying that it was not his place to do so, but the man insisted. The son gave the head of the chicken to the man. He gave the innards to his wife. He gave the legs and thighs to the sons. He gave the wings to the daughters, and he kept the carcass for himself.
The man could not control himself and asked “Why have you divided the food in such an unseemly
The son answered, “Did I not tell you that this food was not mine to split up, but nevertheless I did it appropriately. The first time, I gave you and your wife one chicken. Together, that numbers three heads. I gave your two sons one chicken and that’s three heads. I then gave your daughters one chicken and that’s three heads. Since there is only one of me I needed two chickens to count as three in order to divide them equally.
Once again you brought out a chicken and asked me to split it up, and I declined, but you still insisted. And once again I did it properly. I gave you the head because you are the head of the household. Your wife got the innards, because that’s where her children came from. Your sons got the legs because they are the pillars of the family. And the daughters got the wings because some day they will marry and fly away from here. I took the carcass which is shaped like a boat because I came to Athens on a boat and on a boat I shall leave once you have given me my inheritance. So give it to me, and I’ll be on my way. And so it was. (Eicha Rabba 1:4)
This is the first of many short narratives that have similar themes. They always end with the Jerusalemite using cleverness to his advantage in a way that the unsuspecting Athenian cannot deny. All the stories are funny, and it is stunning to find them as commentary on the saddest book of the Bible! In fact I know of no other place in Rabbinic literature where such an extensive digression of this kind takes place. Why here, of all places? Why are these the examples of the kind of Jewish acumen that was noted among the gentiles?
Eicha Rabba dates back to the fifth century, a time when the impact of he second exile still resonated deeply. At first these stories look like a manifestation of impotent rage–a way to feel superior when all evidence is to the contrary, but what prompted the editor to tell these stories here? It was the apparent redundancy in the first verse, of reiterating that the city was great. The triumphalism of the midrash is in stark contrast to the bleak mood of Lamentations. This particular expression of Jewish exceptionalism is all too familiar. It is incredible to realize how ancient this self perception is vis-a-vis our non-Jewish neighbors. It is also not altogether unfamiliar to find this typical Jewish one up-man-ship amidst the most tragic of circumstances, but to chalk it off to being just an example of the pathos of Jewish humor might be missing the point.
This is a comment on how little such cleverness matters. There are pitfalls to being exceptional in that there is a tendency to believe in ones own public relations. It inspires jealousy, resentment and sometimes retribution. It may be significant to others, but it should mean very little to ourselves. In the end, the great city and her oh so brilliant inhabitants end up desolate and in servitude. The witty repartee that carried us into exile must have been cold comfort.
All that wisdom has served to make the exile that much more painful. In the end, we have a few funny stories with which to salve our wounds.
Because the Bar Kochba Rebellion (132–136 CE), had such a tragic ending, Jewish civilization retreated into the life of the mind. As in these ancient stories, Jews, by and large, make their mark in using their wits not only in Talmud, but even in ways that the world can appreciate. We who take pride in Jewish professional athletes know that if we wished, we could easily remember all their names, but try and name all the Jewish Nobel Prize winners…
Much to the great relief to many and consternation to some, the Jewish army of the State of Israel has brought us back to being a nation that does not only have to rely on its witty rejoinders for solace. These are the jokes of exile but not of a nation. Nowadays, just when we think that we stand among the nations as equals, the nations of the world remind us that we are tolerated but don’t really belong. The Munich massacre of 1972 was only an assault on Jews, and had nothing to do with the Olympics, and so therefore, there is no reason to devote even a minute to their memory, on this, the fortieth anniversary. This is a private affair, it has nothing to do with the Olympics of 2012.
Even Israel, with her great Jewish army, is finding out that with all the achievements it has made on the world stage, the necessity for a few good jokes has yet to pass. The more things change…