I have finished reading the Midrash Rabbah and want to mention some very cool things I learned today.
I had been unaware that the prophet Zecharia had committed any kind of sin, and had always thought he had been a completely pure man who had been stoned by an angry people. Not so.
'But it bringeth iniquity to remembrance, that they may be taken' (ib): this is the sin of Zechariah, of whom it is stated, And the spirit of God clothed Zechariah the son of Jehoiada the priest, and he stood above the people (II Chron. XIV, 20). Was he, then, over the heads of the people that you say 'above the people'? What it means is that he imagined himself high above all the people. He was son-n-law of the king, high priest, a prophet, and a judge, so he began to speak arrogantly; hence it is stated, And he said unto them, Thus saith God, Why transgress ye the commandments of the Lord, He hath also forsaken you.
At that time the Holy One, blessed be He, wept and said, "Woe is Me! What have I done? I caused My Shechinah to dwell below on earth for the sake of Israel; but now that they have sinned, I have returned to My former habitation. Heaven forfend that I become a laughter to the nations and a byword to human beings!" At that time Metatron came, fell upon his face, and spake before the Holy One, blessed be He: "Sovereign of the Universe, let me weep, but do Thou not weep." He replied to him, "If thou lettest Me not weep now, I will repair to a place which thou hast not permission to enter, and will weep there," as it is said, But if ye will not hear it, My soul shall weep in secret for pride (Jer. XIII, 17).
The entire elaborate story of the Patriarchs, Matriarchs and Moses, including Moses' cursing the sun. I love how the sun replies when Moses tells him he ought to have become dark: "By thy life, O Moses, faithful shepherd, how could I become dark when they did not permit me and did not leave me alone? But they beat me with sixty whips of fire and said to me, "Go, pour forth thy light."
I also like how Abraham effectively forces the alphabet and the Torah not to testify against Israel (it quite mirrors the beginning midrash by Genesis.)
The Four Ascending Requests
Zabdi b. Levi opened his discourse with the text, The kings of the earth believed not, etc (Lam. IV, 12). There arose four kings each of whom made a different request, viz. David, Asa, Jehoshaphat, and Hezekiah.
[Now I'm going to paraphrase.]
David said, Let me pursue my enemies and overtake them. Asa stood up and said, "I have not the strength to slay them, but I will pursue them and do Thou perform [the slaying.]" Jehoshaphat stood up and said, "I have the strength neither to slay nor to pursue, but I will utter a song and do Thou perform [the slaying and pursuing."] Hezekiah stood up and said, "I have the strength neither to slay nor to pursue nor to utter a song, but I will sleep upon my bed and do Thou perform [all these things.]"
God performs each of their requests and the required verses are brought to demonstrate how He does it. It's quite brilliant.
R. Nahman reported that Samuel said in the name of R. Joshua b. Levi: The Holy One, blessed be He, summoned the ministering angels and said to them: "If a human king had a son who died and mourns for him, what is it customary for him to do?" They replied, "He hangs sackcloth over his door." He said to them, "I will do likewise." That is what is written, I clothe the heavens with blackness, and I make sackcloth their covering (Isa. L, 3). [He again asked them,] "What does a human king do [when mourning]?" They replied, "He extinguishes the lamps." He said to them, "I will do likewise;" as it is said, The sun and the moon are become black, and the stars withdraw their shining (Joel IV, 15). "What does a human king do?" They replied. "He overturns his couch." He said to them, "I will do likewise;" as it is stated, Till thrones were cast down, and One that was ancient of days did sit (Dan. VII, 9) - if it is possible to say so, they were overturned. "What does a human king do?" They replied, "He walks barefoot." He said to them, "I will do likewise;" as it is stated, The Lord, in the whirlwind and in the storm in His way, and clouds are the dust of His feet (Nahum I, 3). "What does a human king do?" They replied, "He rends his purple robes. He said to them, "I will do likewise;" as it is written, The Lord hath done that which He devised (bizza emrato) He hath performed His word (Lam. 11. 17). (R. Jacob of Kefar-Henan explained: What means 'bizza emrato? He rent his purple.) "What does a human king do?" They replied, "He sits in silence." He said to them, "I will do likewise;" as it is stated, He sitteth alone and keepeth silence (ib. III, 28). "What does a human king do when mourning?" They replied, "He sits and weeps." He said to them, "I will do likewise," as it is written, And in that day did the Lord, the God of hosts, call to weeping, and to lamentation, and to baldness (Isa. XXII, 12).
(1:1, pages 67-68)
The Clever Jerusalemites
There are about fifty anecdotes about clever Jerusalemites beginning on page 76. They are great.
R' Johanan ben Zakai
Firstly, I love how he said "Woe!" but then stated that he had exclaimed "Wah!" in order to save his life. Secondly, I love how he ends up getting out of besieged Jerusalem; it reminds me of The Count of Monte Cristo.
- He added, "I have come to the conclusion that I must get out of here." He sent a message to Ben Battiah, "Get me out of here." He replied, "We have made an agreement among ourselves that nobody shall leave the city except the dead." He said, "Carry me out in the guise of a corpse." R. Eliezer carried him by the head, R. Joshua by the feet, and Ben Battiah walked in front. When they reached [the city gates, the guards] wanted to stab him. Ben Battiah said to them, "Do you wish people to say that when our teacher died his body was stabbed?" On his speaking to them in this manner, they allowed him to pass. After going through the gates, they carried him to a cemetery and left him there and returned to the city."
Genius. I love it.
(1:5, #31, page 102)
Miriam and her Seven Sons
Did you know there was a version of Hannah and her Seven Sons that predates the version most of us know? Well, there is.
"It is related of Miriam, the daughter of Tanhum, that she was taken captive with her seven sons. The emperor took and placed them in the innermost of seven rooms."
This includes the description of an exceedingly anthropomorphic God per the last and seventh child, incidentally.
The footnote to this explains: Not "Nahtum" as in the text. In Git. 57b the name of the woman is not given. A similar story is related of a woman named Hannah in connection with the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes.
So folks, when you hear me saying "Miriam and her Seven Sons," you'll know whom I am referring to...
(1:16, page 130)
How the Angels are Created
R. Helbo said: Every day the Holy One, blessed be He, creates a band of new angels who utter a new song before Him and then pass away. R. Berekiah said: I replied to R. Helbo by quoting, And he said: Let me go, for the day breaketh (Gen. XXXII, 27) (and my time has arrived to utter a song before Him!) But he answered me, "You strangler, do you think to strangle me [with such a specious argument]? The angels [concerned in the incident with Jacob] were Gabriel and Michael who were celestial princes, and while the others pass away [daily], they do not pass away!"
Hadrian the accursed asked R. Joshua B. Hananiah: "You declare that every day the Holy One, blessed be He, creates a band of new angels who utter a new song before Him and then pass away?" "Yes," he answered. "Where, then, do they go?" he inquired. "To where they were created." "And whence were they created?" "From the river of fire." "And what is the nature of the river of fire?" "It is like the Jordan which does not cease flowing night or day. " "But," he retorted, "the Jordan flows by day and stops by night!" He replied, "I kept watch at Beth Peor and observed how the Jordan flowed at night the same as by day." Hadrian asked, "Whence does the river of fire originate?" He answered, "From the sweat of the Hayyoth caused by their carrying the divine throne."
(3: 23-25, #8, page 201-202)
That last one is my favorite. Next time someone starts attacking my creative interpretation, I am going to call them "Strangler!" Plus I love the idea regarding the angels.
There's loads more cool stuff, but I figure this is what I liked best.