I have always found the following story about the destruction of the Temple from Midrash Lamentations Rabba (Ch 1:24) quite disturbing:
There was a case with one woman in the neighborhood of Rabban Gamliel, whose small child died – and she was weeping by night on account of that child. Rabban Gamliel would hear her voice, and remember the destruction of the Temple, and he would weep with her until his eyelashes fell out. When his disciples noticed this they went and removed her from his neighborhood.
This succinct story is characterized by what is missing, forcing the readers to use their imagination in order to fill in the gaps. The story begins by telling us of a woman who has lost her young son, a youth, and she cries for him every night. Does she only cry at night, or is it only at night that her weeping is heard?
On the other side of the wall, Rabban Gamliel hears her cries and remembers the destruction of the Temple. In his sorrow, he, too, begins to weep. Through the woman, he connects to his loss, through her he hears the pain within him, the pain over this tragedy: “…And he would remember the destruction of the Temple.”
Has he ever seen the woman? Does he know what she is crying about? The story does not reveal the answer to these questions. All we know is that her private pain over the loss of her son connects to his sorrow over a greater loss, the national tragedy.
He cries so hard that his eyelashes fall out. (One wonders whether the woman’s eyelashes also fell out.) For how long does he cry: Weeks? Months? More? It is left to the reader to decide. “His students noticed this.” Perhaps they noticed because he was not focused; perhaps he suddenly appeared old for his age. In any event, they noticed. Maybe it was the eyes without the eyelashes, unprotected eyes, maybe a bit scary.
After a while it became clear to his students, a group of young men, that they must put an end to this crying. They immediately “removed the woman from his neighborhood.” The problem was solved. And that’s the end of the story. It’s “his neighborhood,” not “her neighborhood.” They have the power to make her leave.
But where is Rabban Gamliel while this is happening? Did he wonder what made the crying stop? Did he miss her? Did he ask about her? The silence in the story suggests not. Did the women understand what happened and why she was forced to leave her home?
This sad story carries sharp critique. It tells of the price of the barrier between the personal tragedy and loss of the woman whose son died and the destruction of the Temple, a religious, national, public tragedy. The woman is the vehicle through which Rabban Gamliel experiences the destruction of the Temple, but he does not relate to her, even when she suddenly disappears. At least, the story chooses not to mention it.
The sharp criticism becomes clear when, for a moment, we look at the story in a broader context. This is the opening of the Book of Lamentations, those very first sentences: “How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! How is she become as a widow…She weepeth sore in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks; she hath none to comfort her among all her lovers” – here she is in the Megilla, the bereaved mother from the story – she is actually Zion! A woman who sits alone, a widow, tears on her cheeks and no one to comfort her.
She suddenly transitions from an anonymous woman in a story to the embodiment of Zion which, apparently, is the city and the people right here, on the other side of the wall. And you can hear her, if you would only listen. It turns out that the students cast Zion out of the neighborhood, that same Zion for whom Rabban Gamliel weeps.
This short story shows, in its gentle way, that those same injustices which were responsible for the destruction of the Temple repeat themselves again and again throughout history. Ironically, they are created through the attempts to deal with our grief over our loss. Apparently, we don’t need blind hatred or Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. We just need the aggression of students who don’t see past their own noses, and a great rabbi who keeps silent.
As we commemorate the “three weeks” – the period between 17 Tammuz and Tisha B’Av – I find consolation in the fact that our sages (hazal) were able to point out their own and their students’ deficiencies courageously, thus showing us the way to self-correction and salvation in our days, too.