The Gate of Wounded Feelings:
Introduction and “Martyrology” prayers
for Fabrangen Havurah, Yom Kippur 5761 (2000)
Last year I introduced this section of the liturgy by comparing the Martyrology to a set of two-thousand-year-old grievances hurled at God in something of a family fight. This year, I want to focus again on a family fight-two of them, in fact.
Imma Shalom, Eliezer and Gamliel
First, I’d like to look at the talmudic story about R. Eliezer, his colleagues, and the kashering [making kosher] of an unusual kind of coiled or “snake” oven. The part of the story most often recounted tells of a carob tree uprooting and moving, a brook flowing backward, the study house walls bending, and a voice from heaven announcing that Eliezer is always right; despite these signs, the majority rules against him, upholding the concept that the “Torah is not in heaven.” What is less often recounted is even more dramatic… and quite troubling:
Eliezer is afterward ex-communicated by his colleagues, led by R. Gamliel, his wife’s brother. Eliezer’s wife, Imma Shalom, then extracts a pledge from Eliezer not to recite the petitionary prayers. One day, however, she is distracted during the morning prayers by a beggar at the door (or, some say, she mistook that morning for one on which such prayers are not recited); in either case, following a moment of distraction, Ima Shalom finds that Eliezer has “fallen on his face” in petitionary prayer. She cries out that he has slain her brother, and in the same moment, the death of Gamliel is announced. Asked how she knew her brother was dead, Imma Shalom replies: “I have a tradition from my grandfather’s house that all gates are closed, except the gate of wounded feelings.”
Now, I don’t propose to have any idea if, how, or why God would allow one individual’s wounded feelings to cause another individual’s death; but I do see in this story a moment of tension high enough to rip open some sort of portal: Eliezer, so hurt his emotions are considered lethal, finally prostrating himself to pour out his heart before God; Imma Shalom, already torn between husband and brother, now also pulled to the door by someone else’s need; Gamliel, heretofore either oblivious or indifferent to his brother-in-law’s plight, finally touched somehow while no doubt in the midst of his own petitionary prayers; and then there is God… all linked somehow through the gate of wounded feelings.”
Joseph and His Brothers
Next, I’d like to consider the conflict between the biblical Joseph and his brothers and the way that conflict is resolved: Joseph, now thriving in Egypt, suddenly finds, at his feet begging for food, the brothers who sold him into slavery 20 years before. Joseph’s brothers have repented; they have refused to repeat their sin when offered the opportunity to again betray the youngest and favorite brother, this time Benjamin. Joseph tells his brothers “do not be distressed, nor reproach yourselves for having sold me here, for it was to be a provider that God sent me ahead of you” (Gen 45:5).
At his own gate of wounded feelings, Joseph makes a move toward healing. He, his brothers, and their father are reconciled. This is surely a happier ending than found in many family fights. In fact, this story is often held up as a model of teshuva [“return” or repentance].
The Martyrology, however, offers a disturbing postscript to this story. The heart of the traditional Martyrology, the poem “Eleh Ezkerah” [“These I remember”], attributes the torture and death of ten Hadrianic-era rabbis to the sale of Joseph by his brothers — retribution for the apparently unpunished capital crime of kidnapping. For a medieval Jewish community, this explanation gave meaning to suffering of the righteous and helped them face their own looming martyrdom. But it also added to our liturgy the suggestion that teshuva doesn’t work: After all, if the model teshuva still warranted ten heinous deaths in atonement, what hope is there for our own efforts at repentance?”
There are times when I’m sure that our own efforts at teshuva are simply never enough. And the Joseph story well illustrates my doubts: A midrash tells how Benjamin named his children for all the ways in which Joseph had been absent from his life — Bela, because Joseph was swallowed up among the nations; Hupim, because Joseph did not see his wedding nor vice versa; Ard, because he went down among pagans; etc. Joseph’s sons, too, are named for loss. Meanwhile, Jacob mourned continuously for two decades, refusing comfort.
How do teshuva and reconciliation affect those 20 years of separation and suffering? What was once scarlet may, indeed, be white (as in Isaiah 1:18). But bleached cloth doesn’t have the same texture as untreated fabric; wounds leave scars that teshuva doesn’t erase.
I am also certain, though, that I cannot pray to a God who wants or needs someone else’s suffering to make up for my failings; I cannot pray that wounds I’ve caused be somehow eased through Rabbi Akiba’s tortured death any more than I can expect God to reckon R. Shimon ben Gamliel’s death against the sin of one of Joseph’s brothers.
My Martyrology Prayer
Instead, I do pray that all those wounded feelings of the past — the ones we as individuals have caused and the ones we’ve suffered; the ones our People have perpetrated and the ones we’ve survived — that all those wounded feelings open a gate. But I pray that, instead of opening a conduit for more suffering, we open a path to healing, where scar tissue is tended and bleached cloth reinforced.
Our sins have consequences for ourselves, for the world around us, and for God. We are constantly damaging the image of God within ourselves when we sin and damaging the image of God in others when we harm them. We are constantly wounding God’s Name. The extraordinary efforts of our ancestors to uphold the covenant, protecting God’s name regardless of cost, obligate us to rethink all the ordinary ways in which we fail to uphold the covenant, damaging the Name.
The Joseph story in this context cautions us to consider the consequences of even minor jealousies and petty wounds and to seek reconciliation before the years intervene to make the wounds deeper, before our children — like Jacob’s grandchildren — answer to the names of their parents’ pain. The story of Ima Shalom and her family carries an even more powerful warning to take seriously the consequences of our interactions with family and community.
The Martyrology leads us to consider both the strength and the fragility of our relationship with God. It reminds us of our responsibility to maintain that relationship, urging renewed commitment to repentance and forgiveness. In forgiving and seeking forgiveness, by opening to God’s forgiveness — and by forgiving God as well — we facilitate healing of others, of ourselves, and of the divine Name, wounded by sin.
Reading: Danny Siegel‘s “They wrapped him in the Torah he loved…” (excerpted below)
They wrapped him in the Torah he loved,
and lived by, and taught with awe,
in defiance of the Romans,…
Hanina was not the first Jew to be bound…
You may burn a Torah
but the Torah will not be consumed….
Recalling Roman tortures, Nazi horrors, human cruelties of every kind…
We rise to bless and praise
Realizing that we have wounded others just as we have suffered wounds,..
we rise to glorify and honor
Knowing that every wound we suffer or cause wounds the divine Name,…”
we rise to hail the Name,
higher by far than any consolations that we utter in this world
Acknowledging our responsibility to offer and seek forgiveness…
we pray that we might help complete God’s holy realm in our own lifetime
Asking God to help us form a path of healing
through the gate of wounded feelings,…
we rise to exalt God’s name and make it holy