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Friday, 3 August, 2018 - 12:00 pm

One day the zoo-keeper noticed that the orangutan was reading two books - the Bible and Darwin's Origin of Species.

Surprised, he asked the ape, "Why are you reading both those books?"

"Well," said the orangutan, "I just wanted to know if I was my brother's keeper or my keeper's brother."

This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, has the Mitzvah popularly known today as the Grace After Meals, after eating a meal with bread. The Torah instructs: “And you will eat and be satisfied, and you shall bless the Lord, your G-d, for the good land He has given you.”

There are four major sections in the Grace After Meals: The opening blessing thanking G-d for food; the blessing for the Land; the blessing for Jerusalem; and the blessing that G-d is and does good. The first three are biblically mandated, as the Torah tells us to thank G-d for the good land He gave us. The last blessing was added on later.

Moses composed the first blessing, “the blessing of the One Who nourishes,” when the manna fell from heaven in the desert. Joshua composed the second blessing, “the blessing for the Land,” when the Jews entered the Land of Israel. The blessing of “Builder of Jerusalem” was composed by Kings David and Solomon. David conquered Jerusalem and composed the segment of “Have mercy on Jerusalem,” and Solomon, who built the Holy Temple, added the segment “the great and holy House.” 

The fourth blessing of “The One Who is good, Who does good for others” was composed by the Sages in Yavneh (the city to which the Supreme Court moved) after the destruction of the second Temple. It came about as a result of the following story.

The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. 60 years later, under the rule of Emperor Adrian, the Jews rose in revolt, led by the mighty Jewish warrior, Shimon ben Kuziba, known in Jewish history as Bar Kochba, supported by Rabbi Akiva and most of the sages.

When Publius Aelius Hadrianus, known in Jewish history as Hadrian, took the reins of power in 117 CE, he inaugurated―at least at first―an atmosphere of tolerance. But he changed. Instead of letting the Jews rebuild, Hadrian formulated a plan to transform Jerusalem into a pagan city-state on the Greek polis model with a shrine to Jupiter on the site of the Jewish Temple. He also tried to destroy all of Judaism.

In 132 CE, Bar Kuziba organized a guerilla army and actually succeeded in throwing the Romans out of Israel and establishing, albeit for a very brief time, an independent Jewish state. The Talmud states that he established an independent kingdom that lasted two and a half years.

Bar Kuziba's success caused many to believe―among them Rabbi Akiva, one of the wisest and holiest of rabbis―that he was the Messiah. He was nicknamed “Bar Kochba” or “Son of Star.” The star referred to Messiah.

United under Bar Kochba, the Jews were a force to be reckoned with. They overran the Romans, declared independence, and even minted coins. That is a pretty unique event in the history of the Roman Empire.

Rome could not let this be. Such boldness had to be crushed, and those responsible punished―brutally and totally.

But the Jews were not easily overcome. Hadrian poured more and more troops into Israel to fight the Bar Kochba forces. Heading this mammoth force was Rome's best general, Julius Severus. But even with all this might, Severus feared meeting the Jews in open battle.

Indeed, the Romans lost an entire legion in the war. The 22nd Roman legion walked into an ambush and was slaughtered and never reconstituted. By the end of the revolt, the Romans had to bring virtually half the army of the entire Roman Empire into Israel to crush the Jews.

In the end, they crushed the revolt.

Bar Kochba made his final stand in the city of Beitar, which is to the southwest of Jerusalem. You can visit it today; it is right near ancient Beitar, which has not yet been excavated.

It was on the 9th of Av that year when Beitar finally fell, around 135 CE. Fascinatingly, Beitar fell on the same day when both Temples were burnt.

Some half-million Jews were slain in Beitar. To add insult to injury, they refused to let anyone clean up the Jewish corpses. The Romans, in their fury, did not want to allow the Jewish bodies to be buried; they wanted to leave them out in the open to rot. The exhausted Romans had had enough of the Jews, who had caused them more manpower and material losses than any other people in the history of their empire. At the end of the Bar Kochba revolt, Hadrian decided that the way to prevent another one was to cut the Jews off from any connection to their beloved land and faith. It was one of the darkest periods of our history, as the flame of the Jewish people and Judaism came close to extinction.

Miraculously, though it was August, the hottest month in Israel, the bodies did not rot. They remained intact, out in the open fields and terrains.

It took a long time, some say months, some say years when finally, Rome allowed all of the slain Jews to be buried.

That day, when Rome granted this permission, the sages residing in Yavneh, the home of the Jewish Supreme Court, decided to add a fourth section to Grace After Meals—the One Who is and does good.

The phrase “Who is good” refers to the fact that although years passed, the bodies did not decompose. The phrase “and does good”—refers to the fact that they were afforded a proper Jewish burial.

This remains in the text of our Grace After Meals to this very day… which is very strange. Why are we thanking G-d for this “miracle” of the corpses not decomposing, when the same G-d allowed them all to be killed? Do you want to give me a miracle? Allow them to live! Don’t kill them and then keep their bodies intact!

What is more, as long as Beitar stood, there was still a remnant of hope that the Temple’s destruction could be reversed. Once it fell, 65 years after the destruction of the second Temple, it sealed the fate of the people and the destruction became an irreversible finality. We are thanking G-d for the burial of all these bodies, when the fact that this event remains, as Rambam puts it, one of the great catastrophes of our history!

The answer to this can be appreciated by yet another strange story.

In Genesis, Joseph was doomed to slavery. He initially set out to check that all was well with his brothers, but he ended up getting stripped of his famous multi-colored coat (a personal gift from his father) by those same brothers, who then proceeded to throw him into a pit of deadly snakes and scorpions. He managed to survive, but his fortune was short-lived. Soon after, he was dragged out and sold into slavery to merchants, and eventually ended up in the most immoral place in the world: Egypt.

Things just seemed to be getting worse and worse for Joseph.

Yet at the height of it all, when he was taken out of the pit and sold to the Arab merchants, the Torah seems to relate a superfluous statement.

The Ishmaelite camels were bearing spices, balsam, and lotus.

Why is it important to know what the camels bore?

Rashi answer was that a typical Arab caravan at that time would carry kerosene, which has a powerfully unpleasant odor. Yet this caravan was different; G-d made sure that the group that would transport Joseph into the Egyptian Exile would be carrying fragrant spices to ensure that Joseph would not be bothered and damaged by any bad odors.

But this seems senseless! Joseph’s suffering was horrific. A 17-year-old boy was being sold as a slave! What difference did it make what smell the caravan had on his descent to Egypt? Does such a minor thing in such major circumstances really have any effect? G-d, you want to help Joseph? Send him back to his father! But there is a moving message here. G-d wished to send Joseph a message that he was not forgotten. Yes, for whatever reason, he was enduring a horrible fate, which only later would turn out to be a lifesaver. (Joseph would become Prime Minister of Egypt, save the world from famine, and secure the survival of the Jewish family as well.) But he should never think he was alone in the world, that G-d had forgotten him. The pleasant fragrance was a hint that although Joseph might have scores of questions, nevertheless G-d was always with him. The fragrance was a Divine “wink,” as it were, that “I am thinking of you; I love you; I am here with you. Do not despair ever!”

Indeed, the “wink” worked. Joseph did not give up hope. He remained full of grace, cheerfulness, joy, and stamina, throughout his long ordeal. He even tried to cheer up his fellow prisoners. Joseph never failed to “smell the roses,” quite literally, and remained full of vigor and joy.

This was the great moment of the Beitar miracle that the sages chose to immortalize in our daily Grace After Meals.

Yes, Beitar was no Exodus or Splitting of the Sea. It was a dark period, one of the darkest. Yet when the rabbis saw that the Jewish bodies were preserved, it represented something. Our destiny is not over! Our fate has not been sealed by Roman victory.

In fact, two celebrations were in place. G-d was “winking” that He was protecting us, despite the pain and rivers of blood. What is more, their bodies were “deposited” into the earth, their dreams, faith, and destiny were “planted” in the earth, and one day they would emerge, sprout and produce. Redemption would yet come to the Jewish people.

For this, the Sages felt, a special daily blessing was appropriate; it would inspire our people for millennia.

It is true in all of our lives. I may be enduring pain, but the knowledge that I am not alone it gives me a certain strength and royalty throughout.

I can’t always alleviate your pain, but I can show you that I am with you—and that means the world to someone in pain. Never underestimate that power and that ability to show someone they are not alone in this world.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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