I am not sure how the others sitting around the big conference table with paper plates piled with fruit salad, and bloated tea bags relate to these bizarre Talmudic tales, but I’m beginning to appreciate the unflinching honesty of the compilers. There’s one where the preening rabbi and his spiritual son, a repentant thief, suddenly begin insulting each other over a minor legalistic dispute. Repressed anger and long-buried resentment erupt into a quarrel that results in the illness (both mental and physical) of both protagonists and their untimely deaths. The men expire from heartache, an overdose of unconscious passions and a sad inability to forgive.
I am uneasily sucked into this tale of human emotions gone awry. At the same time, I am restive: Where is the therapeutic insight, the wisdom recipe for mental health? Like an oil spill or tsunami, there seem to be no measures for containment. And even more worrisome, there is no focus at all on root causes. This is beginning to evoke the world of my childhood in uncomfortable ways.
Indeed as we go on, there is no shrinking from recurring tales of blinding paternal rage. There was a famous rabbinic teacher named Jose of Yokereth of whom a departing disciple complained, “he showed no mercy to his own son and his daughter.” The implication is that R. Jose had wayward children whom he refused to indulge. As we read on, we discover that, on the contrary, there is something exceptional about each of his kids.
One day, R. Jose’s son makes sure the hungry family laborers are fed on time when his father returns irresponsibly late. Instead of thanking his son for his righteous deed when he himself is derelict in his duties to employees, R. Jose rebukes his son for making him look bad. He then expresses a wish that the young man expire before his time. Next we turn to this same man’s treatment of his famously beautiful daughter. Annoyed by the attention she draws from men, he curses her: “My daughter, you are a source of trouble to mankind; return to the dust so that men may not sin because of you.”
It is one thing for girl-babies to be stigmatized as the issue of a blood stain. It is another for a grown-up daughter to be wished dead because of the natural attraction of her God-given beauty.
Roly looks up. I have the feeling he is looking straight at me. He is at the very least speaking straight to my wounded core. “So what is wrong with this guy?” he’d like to know.
Sounds like a simple, straight-forward question. I feel like coming up with a simple, straight-forward answer.
“He’s flipped out.”
I am amused by the way Roly picks up on this not so flippant reply. It registers in the repository of all that he knows about human limits.
Later, in the elevator going down we try it out in French… “le mec, il a flippé.”
One word and we have spoken volumes.
Perhaps it is for such moments that I am here?