When God Weeps

Tanna debe Eliyyahu (lit. The Lore of the School of Elijah) is a midrashic work thought to have been composed between the third and the tenth centuries. Unlike all the other Midrashim, it does not consist of a compilation of individual homilies but is unified work shaped with a character of its own.

This Midrash is distinguished by its didactic and moral aims. The authors deals with the divine precepts and the reasons for them, and the importance and knowledge of Torah, prayer and repentance. He is especially concerned with the ethical and religious values that are enshrined in the lives of the patriarch. In the eyes of many students and scholars, it is a unique masterpiece of Jewish thought.

Except for an abridged translation into Yiddish, the work has never before been translated from the original. A new translation from the Hebrew by William G. Braude and Israel J. Kapstein and based on the critical edition prepared by Meir Friedman, was published by Jewish Publication Society in 1981, and was recently issued in a paperback edition. This book makes accessible to the English world a Jewish text of major interest, one that has influenced generations of students and that still has the power to move the contemporary reader.

In the following passage (ch. 30), God is described as grieving sorely for the martyrs and the exiles of Israel. During both nights of the exile — the one following the destruction of the First Temple and the one following the destruction of the Second — God wept.

When the Holy One grieves, He strikes both hands together, clasps them over His heart, then folds His arms as He weeps over the righteous, sometimes secretly, sometimes openly. Why does He weep over them secretly? Because it is unseemly for a lion to weep before a fox, unseemly for a Sage to weep before his disciple, unseemly for a king to weep before the least of his servants, unseemly for a householder to weep before a hired man, as it is said: "So that you will not hear it, My soul shall weep in secret for your pride" (Jeremiah 13:17)....

In still another passage in Scripture, the Holy One is described as weeping for Israel, and so set the example of weeping for Israel's generations in the night. "[The presence] will continue to weep in the night, and her tears continue on her cheeks" (Lamentations 1:2). But is it only in the night that Israel weep? Do they not also weep during the day? By night, however, is meant the long night of exile which set in with R. Akiba's death, a death which appeared to mark the crushing of all hope for the restoration of the kingdom of Israel.[*] From the time when the decree was issued against R. Akiba and his companions, Israel's green branches were utterly broken, and hence God "will continue to weep during the night."

As Israel went into the night of the exile, they went, every one of them in silence, without weeping, as if unaware of the cause of the exile — their offense against God. But God came to them and said: "My children, why do you remain silent? Why do you not weep? It is not for the merit of the two tears that Esau wept before his father that I have come to show the graciousness of My sovereignty in Se'ir [ a land where the rains of blessing never cease]? Hence, "throw off the burden of silence [and weep]. My God calls me to remember Se'ir (Isaiah 21:11).

[*] The Babylonian exile in 586 BCE lasted only seventy years, and Jerusalem burned by Roman emperor Titus in 70 CE, appeared to be free again in 132 CE under [rebel] Bar Kokhba, one of whose strongest backers was R. Akiba. [Back] 
 From Tanna debe Eliyyahu (The Lore of the School of Elijah), Translated from the Hebrew by William G. Braude and Israel J. Kapstein. © JPS, 1981.
William Braude translated The Midrash on Psalms and Pesikta Rabbati for the Yale Judaica Series and The Book of Legends (Sefer ha-Aggadah) by Bialik and Ravnitzky. Israel J. Kapstein, late professor emeritus of English at Brown University, was the author of numerous scholarly articles, stories, poems and a novel, Something of a Hero

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