Sunday, March 29, 2009

2:1:277: Trouble in Paradise

Today's aggadot cover Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel II. No. 277 is a long and somewhat odd story, too long to quote, but short enough to summarize. \

R. Simeon ben Gamliel was the patriarch of the Sanhedrin, R. Meir was "counselor sage" and R. Nathan was president. (I infer from the story that these three positions were in descending order of importance.) People stood whenever any of the three entered. R. Simeon ben Gamliel thought that people should respect his position more, and so he changed the protocol (in a slightly complex way) so that when people still stood, but indicated greater respect for the more important positions. R. Meir and R. Nathan were not there when the change was made, and when they learned of this, they decided to depose R. Simeon ben Gamliel. They agreed to ask him to lecture on an unfamiliar topic, and when he was unable to do so, they would claim he was unfit for the office.

However, another rabbi overheard this plot, sat near R. Simeon ben Gamliel's chambers, and studied the topic loudly and frequently. R. Simeon ben Gamliel realized something was up, paid careful attention, and when R. Meir and R. Nathan sprung their trap, he was able to lecture on the topic.

R. Simeon ben Gamliel then ordered R. Meir and R. Nathan expelled, and could only communicate by throwing written tablets into the building. No halachic rulings were repeated in their names.

Later, R. Meir --- but not R. Nathan --- made peace with R. Simeon ben Gamliel.

* * *

There is a tendency to romanticize the great leaders of the past. Many of the aggadot explain how each tanna and amorah was extraordinary pious, knowledgeable, wise, learned, etc. But this one is the opposite. This story involves jealousy, plots and counterplots, and all sorts of petty behavior.

As such, it is a little bit like the book of Numbers. Once the Jews have left Egypt, received the Torah, built the miskan, and received instruction on the details of the sacrifices, the ordinary business or ordinary life takes over. And there we have stories about malicious gossip, cowardice, open rebellion, and the breakdown of civil order.

This story, like the book of Numbers, is a reminder that we do not all exist on some lofty spiritual plane where we and everyone else are perfect. We life in a much more complex world where much is broken. The goal for all of us is to take some of the lofty ideals that we have, apply them in the real world, and make things better.

No comments: