The backstory to this intriguing event presents itself as the survival manual for living in the diaspora. Ironically, the story as presented in our Parsha takes place in the land of Israel. Our forefather, Yitzchak, was forced to relocate to a hostile environment but nevertheless became immensely successful. The natives reacted with jealousy and aggression and Yitzchak was unceremoniously ordered by the king, Avimelech, to leave. The scene repeated itself and Yitzchak eventually ended up in Be’er Sheva. Avimelech suffered a severe malady and this, according to the Midrash, motivated him to visit Yitzchak (Midrash Rabbah Toldot: 64:9). The king correctly read the situation – that Yitzchak’s God was one to be reckoned with. However, he was not exactly contrite about the way he treated Yitzchak. Avimelech showed up with his top general seeking a non aggression pact. Although Avimelech acknowledged that Yitzchak’s blessings came from God, his treaty was a display of thuggery. According to the Midrash, Avimelech basically told Yitzchak that he was doing him a great favor by allowing him to leave alive (Ibid, 64:10).
Sometimes you have to let go
The Midrash connects the bitter lesson learned in this confrontation between Yitzchak and Avimelech to a later time when the Jews had embarked on the building of the third Temple. Fast forward about 2,000 years, not long after the destruction of the second temple.
It’s interesting how the Midrash describes obtaining permission to build the third Temple. You might expect it to be a joyous occasion, however the Midrash says: ”the evil empire (the Emperor Hadrian who ruled 117-138) decreed that the Temple shall be built.” גָּזְרָה מַלְכוּת הָרְשָׁעָה שֶׁיִּבָּנֶה בֵּית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ (Ibid). No sooner had the construction started when a local sect known as the Kutim** conspired to have the work halted. They falsely reported to the Roman government that Jews were planning to rebel. The Kutim suggested that Hadrian issue an edict whereby the Emperor would mandate changing the final location and size of the new Temple. The Kutim knew that the Jews would never agree to this. Indeed, when the Jews received the edict they cried and called for a rebellion. The Rabbis, knowing the disastrous outcome of a rebellion, had to convince the Jews to give up on building the Temple altogether. The Jews were guided by the wisdom of an extraordinary person – the great Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן חֲנַנְיָה. He was a student of the great Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakia and Rabbi Yehoshua was among those who helped smuggle his venerable teacher out of Jerusalem in a coffin, on the eve of the Temple’s destruction.*
Rabbi Yehoshua presented the Jews with a powerful parable of a lion who had a bone stuck in his throat. The lion let it be known that any animal that could remove the bone from his throat would be richly rewarded. A certain bird with a long beak went into the lions jaw and extracted the bone. When the bird asked for its reward the lion said “you can tell your friends that you were in the jaw of a lion and got out alive- that’s reward enough.” Rabbi Yehshua’s message to the Jews was that they are basically in the very same situation as the bird. Rome rules the world and we cannot defeat them. We must accept our fate and feel lucky that Rome is allowing the Jews to live. They must give up on the idea of rebuilding the third temple (Ibid).
The Midrash brought this story because it harkens back to Yitzchak who realized that Avimelech was a power that had to be reckoned with. He accepted the “non-aggression pact” which was the chance to leave unharmed.
Surviving in the diaspora
I believe that this approach to not confronting authority became the guiding principle for the Jews in the diaspora. Don’t rock the boat, just try to survive. Perhaps this explains the stark contrast between the brave, fearless soldiers of the Maccabi’s and the passive posture that has defined our 2000 years in Exile.
I would be remiss if I ended here and did not provide a glimpse of who Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya was.
Rabbi Yehoshua defeats the wise men of Athens.
To appreciate the greatness and brilliance Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya, I share a famous incident recorded in the Talmud – a battle of wits between the sixty Greek sages and Rabbi Yehoshua in the form of a cryptic exchange of riddles. Although Rome defeated Greece there still existed a prestigious center of wisdom in Athens. Here is a part of that debate:
אייתו ליה תרי ביעי, אמרו ליה, הי דזגתא אוכמתי והי דזגתא חיוורתי? אייתי להו איהו תרי גביני, אמר להו הי דעיזא אוכמתי והי דעיזא חיוורתי.
“The Sages of Athens showed Rabbi Yehoshua two eggs, and asked him, “Which of these eggs came from a white hen and which from a black hen? In response, Rabbi Yehoshua presented them two pieces of cheese and asked, “Which of these cheeses is from the milk of a white goat, and which from the milk of a black goat” (Talmud Bechorot 8B)
This response silenced the Athenians. They were defeated. Several commentators try to unravel the exchange. Here is a beautiful explanation from a commentary to the Talmud, the Maharsha (Shmuel Eliezer HaLevi Eidels: 1555 – 1631).
The Greeks were trying to explain why the Jewish people were facing imminent extinction. It takes 21 days for a hen egg to hatch. This represents the somber days on our calendar known as the “three weeks” – 21 days between the fast days of the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av. Since this period represents darkness and gloom (with halachic restrictions, for example, on joyous public gatherings) it is symbolized by an egg that was laid by a black hen. On the other hand, the 21 days between Rosh Hashana and Hoshana Rabba are purifying and cleansing – representing the egg laid by a white hen. The Wise men of Greece were saying that since both periods are 21 days, there is no difference between the eggs. The 21 days of joy have been canceled out by the 21 days of mourning. The Greeks believed that individual and national fortunes and misfortunes are totally random. There is no such thing as good triumphing over evil. What’s more, the Greeks were intimating that after the destruction of the Temple there is no hope for Israel..***
Even our black is white
Rabbi Yehoshua took out two pieces of cheese, one from a black goat, the other from a white goat. They too were indistinguishable. With this, he taught them something that even Greek wisdom could not fathom: the fundamental Jewish belief of hope after tragedy; rebirth after destruction.*** The two goats alluded to the goats that were used in the Temple on Yom Kippur. One of them was brought as an offering and the other goat was cast off a cliff. Metaphorically speaking, one goat is white and the other black. The white goat represents our forgiveness based on our special relationship with God. However, even the goat that was cast off the cliff did not represent blackness. It had a red string tied around it and a portion of that red string stayed behind so the Jewish people could witness it turning white and rejoice in the knowledge that God had forgiven us. Essentially, Rabbi Yehoshua was telling the Greeks that their assumptions about Judaism were based on huge misconceptions. It’s not black and white. They simply could not fathom the unique journey of the Jewish people – that even our black turns white.
*Talmud Gittem 56a
**The Kutim were transplanted to Israel by Sancherev when he exiled the 10 tribes. When lions attacked the Kutim they saw this as a sign that they should convert. However, it was not a whole-hearted conversion. In fact, they held up the construction of the second Temple using the same underhanded tactics of falsely claiming that the Jews were planning a rebellion.