12 January 2009
When I began to read today’s long aggadah on Miriam and her seven sons, my first thought was: haven’t I seen this somewhere before? Indeed, the long narrative reproduced here from TB Gittin/Eichah Rabbah/Yalkut Eichah seems to follow essentially the same plot and moral as the Chanukah story of Hannah and her seven sons, familiar to us from the apocryphal Book of Maccabees. This parallelism raises for me a series of editor’s questions about how these twin stories came to be found in their various homes and why Bialik and Ravnitzky reproduce this version here. (I assume that the Book of Maccabees is neither sufficiently biblical to be referenced by the rabbinic midrashim, nor is it sufficiently rabbinic to be used as a source for this volume’s aggadot.) But lacking as I do the expertise in biblical criticism and history, I’ll bracket all these questions and take the midrash of Miriam and her sons as it’s presented here.
Simply put, this aggadah breaks my heart. There’s not much to deconstruct about the basic narrative: Miriam’s seven sons have their faith tested by the emperor, and each dies when he is unwilling to worship idols. The final scene of Miriam’s asking to die before her son and of the emperor’s denying her request is particularly devastating. One can only wonder in what sort of world the writers of the midrash lived when they ended such a story with the Psalmic proof text, “the mother of the children is happy.” Rather than attempt to reclaim or brighten up such a painful story, I’ll just point out a few interesting nuances in the very dark story.
As with any folktale starring multiple children, we know from the start that the youngest child is going to be the narrative focus. The emperor’s attempts to persuade the youngest son to worship his idol strike me as fascinatingly poignant, in particular one of his rationales for why the boy should preserve his own life. Your brothers have all tasted pleasure, the emperor says, and you are too young to have experienced the world. Why don’t you just bow down to the idol and allow yourself the opportunity to live fully in this world? The son responds that the kingdom of God is eternal, which doesn’t actually address the emperor’s temptation: this unwillingness to engage with the physical realities of an imperfect world seems reminiscent of many young zealots. This theme recurs frequently in rabbinic mythos of martyrdom, but rarely as plainly as it does here.
The emperor has other fascinating lines in this aggadah. It’s a classic midrashic trick to have the bad guy quote Torah back at the good guys, as when the emperor taunts Miriam by saying that it’s forbidden for him to slaughter a mother and her child in the same day. While his line did make me laugh—for the only time in this midrash—I wonder whether it’s another reflection of the despair felt by the rabbinic writers: they even use our own texts against us! The aggadah’s final section, where Miriam compares herself to Abraham and sees herself as more devoted to God, also stands as a bit of rabbinic provocation and self-commentary. We lionize Abraham for being willing to sacrifice his son, the narrator seems to be saying, but in our time, we’ve actually sacrificed our children, without praise or even recognition for the fact. By praising Miriam’s virtue here, the rabbinic writers comment on their own time’s tragedy in a story that stands just this side of twisted, troubling, filled with deep pain.
-- Sara Meirowitz