Tuesday, August 6, 2019

The Girl in the Red Coat

Aside from the opening and closing scenes in Stephen Spielberg’s 1993 Academy Award winning “Schindler’s List,” the entire movie was presented in black and white, except for one girl’s red coat depicted in a scene taking place in the Krakow ghetto. The camera followed this young girl as the haunting tune of the famed Yiddish tune, “Oyfn Pripetshik” played in the background.

One of the ways to comprehend mass tragedy is to focus on individuals. By understanding one personal tragic story we can better comprehend mass tragedy. On Tisha B’Av, the sages wrote kinnot (elegies) about the loss of individuals, in order to foster better comprehension of the magnitude of the mass tragedies that we mourn on Tisha B’Av.

Following is a brief review of some of these kinnot.

Kinnah number 11 describes the tragedy of King Josiah. The opening line of the kinnah is taken from Chronicles II 35:25, and the text is considered by some to be Jeremiah’s eulogy upon King Josiah’s death. Rashi proclaims that the sad story of Josiah needs to be invoked during every tragedy for the Jewish people.

Menashe, born to the righteous king Hezekiah and his queen, the daughter of the prophet Isaiah, became one of the most vile and immoral kings in Jewish history. As but one example, Menashe replaced the name of God with his own name in all Torah scrolls. Menashe’s son Josiah, was purposely prevented from learning Jewish theology and practice. On one fortuitous occasion, he found a single uncorrupted Torah scroll and opened it to the portion containing the rebukes that set forth the consequences for shunning God’s word. With his new-found knowledge, he caused a great renaissance in Jewish observance. He died tragically, and so did his outreach movement. As he lay dying, Jeremiah hears the king declare that God is righteous.

The 21st kinnah describes the martyred death of eight of ten leading rabbis during the Hadrianic persecutions of the first century CE. The deaths of the ten, according to the kinnah, was to atone for the sin committed by ten of Joseph’s brothers centuries earlier, who sold Joseph as a slave. Among those killed by the Romans for illicitly teaching Torah are Rabbi Shimon ben GamlielRabbi Akiva, and the other greatest rabbis of that period. The legends surrounding their deaths also stress their piety in accepting this difficult Divine decree.

Finally, the 34th kinnah recounts the untimely death of Zechariah the prophet/High Priest, on Shabbat Yom Kippur in the Holy Temple, as described in the Talmud (Gittin 57b, Sanhedrin 96b). Zechariah reprimanded the Jewish people for bringing an idol to the Temple. In response, a mob summarily murdered, arguably, the holiest man, on the holiest day, in the holiest place on earth. There could not have been a more irreverent crime. After the murder, Zechariah’s blood continued to spew forth; nothing would clot the fountain of flowing blood. Upon seeing this, Nebuzaradan, the chief Babylonian executioner, attempted to kill enough priests and sages to atone for the sin and cause the blood fountain to stop, but nothing would quiet the spewing blood. At one point Nebuzaradan turned to God, calling out, “Is it not sufficient? Shall I continue to kill everyone?” Finally, the blood stopped flowing. The Talmud claims that Nebuzaradan converted to Judaism as a result of this episode.

In order to grasp the enormity of mass tragedy, we must try to perceive the loss of individuals, and only then, when magnifying the tragedy, begin to absorb the scope of this immense calamity.

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