Keeping Pace with the Rabbis (Ketubot 66a)

Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and specter-thin, and dies,
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs.

–John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”

The Talmud brings an amusing story in the context of discussing the following two Biblical verses:

“And you, o mortal, groan; with tottering limbs and bitter grief, groan before their eyes. And when they ask you, ‘Why do you groan,’ answer, ‘Because of the tidings that have come.’ Every heart shall sink and all hands hang nerveless; every spirit shall grow faint and all knees turn to water because of the tidings that have come.” (Ezekial 21:11-12)

Here is the Talmud’s story, paraphrased. The beginning sounds almost like a “man walks into a bar” kind of joke:

A Jew and an idol worshipper were walking down the street. The idol worshipper was not able to keep pace with the Jew, who was walking quite quickly. And so, in an effort to slow down his companion, the idol worshipper casually mentioned the destruction of the Temple. After all, does it not say in Ezekial that bad news makes knees turn to water? And what could be worse than news of the destruction of the Temple? Unfortunately for the idol worshipper, however, the Jew continued to walk just as quickly as before. The idol worshipper was puzzled. He asked the Jew, “But don’t you say that groaning weakens a person? How are you able to keep walking so fast?” The Jew responded, “Only when we groan over new news are our bodies weakened. But the destruction of the Temple? We’ve known about that for years.”

After learning this sugya today, I was walking down the hill from Rehavia to the German colony with my chevruta. In my rush to get back to work, I was at least three steps ahead of him. His comment to me was all-too-predictable: “Ilana, don’t you remember that the Temple was destroyed here in Jerusalem?”

This story resonates for me with experiences outside of Israel, too. I think back to high school, when my family lived next door to our synagogue. One summer, the synagogue building was under massive construction: they were removing asbestos and replacing the roof. On a particular night that summer, my (non-Jewish) friend and jogging partner called me to ask if I wanted to meet the next day on the high school track. “Oh, I can’t run tomorrow,” I told her, recalling that it was erev Tisha B’av. “It’s a fast day.” She asked me what I meant. Why did I have to fast? “It’s a Jewish holiday,” I told her. “We’re mourning the destruction of the Temple.” There was a slight pause, and then my friend said to me, “What? It was destroyed? I thought they were just doing construction!” I groaned, and my knees may have even turned a bit watery. But when we met two days later, I think I still outran her.

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