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Torah on the Grow: Self-Inflicted Wounds and Abuse of Power

01/31/2020 11:53:31 AM


Rabban Gamliel II (d. 114 CE) had wealth, learning, and a pedigree. One needed wealth to be respected by the Romans, learning to be respected by the Rabbis, and pedigree for good measure. Alas, Rabban Gamliel confused being authoritative with being an Autocrat. As a result of such confusion, he was deposed and eventually killed.

Rabban Gamliel publicly humiliated Rabbi Yehoshua. Repeatedly. Better to leap into a fiery furnace than to humiliate someone in public, insists the Talmud. Such behavior is unworthy of a leader, so he was deposed. As Maimonides reminds us in his discussion of Moses' punishment for striking a rock, leaders should be held to the highest standards of behavior.

Ultimately, what killed Rabban Gamliel was his complicity in excommunicating Rabbi Eliezer. The Talmud is ambiguous as to whether Rabban Gamliel was killed because the excommunication, itself, was excessively punitive; or because of the public display of burning all the items that Rabbi Eliezer had previously declared pure was pure spite.

What we know is that Rabbi Eliezer felt deeply aggrieved, and when he poured out his hurt, Gamliel died. In the magical realism of the Talmud, Rabbi Eliezer's wife, who happened to be Rabban Gamliel's sister, knows of her brother's death even before the public pronouncement. When asked how she knew, she shared a tradition from their father's home: All the gates of heaven are locked except for the gates of abuse. (Image at right: Crying Man, by Ben Shahn)

Rabbi Eliezer's cries over the abuse of Rabban Gamliel's power pierced heaven, and not even pedigree could save Rabban Gamliel from himself.

Rav Shai Cherry

Thu, September 24 2020 6 Tishrei 5781