Throughout Meseches Avodah Zarah, we are told of three times when Rebbe Yehudah Hanasi (or simply, “Rebbe”) cried. Each story has a similar outcome that caused Rebbe to come to tears. The first appears on daf 10b, where the gemara recounts the story of Ketia bar Shalom, a Roman advisor to an unnamed Caesar. The Caesar explained his intentions to kill all of the Jews. Ketia explained exactly why the Caesar should not go through with his plan. While the Caesar agreed with him, he had Ketia killed. On the way to his execution, Ketia circumcised himself and repented for his sins.
The second story recounted is on daf 17a, about a man named Eliezer ben Durdaya, who spent his life chasing after women of ill-repute. When he heard of one he hadn’t yet met, he traveled over seven rivers to reach her and paid her fee. Mid-act, the woman rebuked Eliezer ben Durdaya, telling him that his teshuvah would not be accepted. Upon hearing this, he immediately looked to the mountains, heavens, earth, sun, moon, and stars to pray on his behalf. He finally realized that repentance can only come from within, and cried himself to death.
The final story comes just one page later on daf 18a, and is one we are familiar with, as it is repeated on Tishah B’av and Yom Kippur every year. One of the Asara Arugei Malchus, Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon, was sentenced to die by burning while being tortured by having moist wool placed over his heart to prolong the suffering. The executioner, a man named Kaltzatoniri, was moved by his conversation with his daughter and students, and asked how he could also achieve the world to come. Rabbi Chanina answered that the executioner should remove the wool so that he would die quicker. The executioner obeyed, then jumped into the fire himself, and died alongside Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon.
In each of these cases, the gemara reports that a bas kol came from the heavens and announced that each of the individuals who died had earned their place in the world to come. And in each case, Rebbi cried. He cried because, as he explained, “there are those who acquire his share in the world to come after a lifetime of toil, and those who earn it in an instant.” But these three stories have one more connection with each other. These were not simply three individuals who earned their place in the next world in an instant; they were three people who spent their lives on three specific sins. As a Roman politician, Ketia bar Shalom spent his life worshiping foreign gods (avodah zarah). Eliezer ben Durdaya spent his life enmeshed in immorality (giluy arayos). And as an executioner, Kaltzatoniri was devoted to murder (sh’vichas damim). These are not only three cases of repentance; they are repentance from the big three sins in Judaism. And in one instance, each was able to wipe all of that away. That is why Rebbe cried.
It has become an odd phenomenon over the past several years that we see a sort of resurgence of this concept. No, there aren’t any heavenly voices telling us that a recently-deceased person has achieved eternal bliss in the world to come. There are no great sages weeping over the fact that some people spend their entire lives trying to do the right thing while others seem to achieve that goal in one instant. But we do have a modern-day version of this.
Until recently, individuals had to bring about great things in their lives in order to enter the realm of the idolized. Leaders, inventors, entertainers, athletes, moral authorities, and innovators all achieved great accomplishments throughout their lives in order to be immortalized in this world. However, we have seen an ever-increasing number of people who’ve spent their lives doing terrible things, yet in an instant, their legacies are elevated to celebrated status. We all know these names. The most famous of these names is George Floyd, a man who spent his life in and out of prison, who, until one fateful day, was most famous for holding a gun to a woman’s stomach during an armed robbery. Another man, Michael Brown, robbed a convenience store and rushed a police officer who was attempting to apprehend him. Jacob Blake had a warrant out for his arrest for charges of (among other things) assault and domestic violence. He was violating a restraining order and was committing a potential kidnapping.
Most recently, we saw the self-defense shooting of three men with extensive criminal records, two of whom died. Joseph Rosenbaum (11 counts of inappropriate relationships with minors, assault, drug possession, battery, disorderly conduct), Anthony Huber (false imprisonment, domestic abuse, battery), and Gaige Grosskreutz (burglary, drunk driving, domestic violence) were all shot by then-17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse.
All of these cases turned these men into martyrs, or in the case of the two who survived, empathetic individuals. It’s as if all their prior crimes and convictions were gone. But there is one other thing they all have in common - one characteristic that links them all together. Unlike the cases listed by the gemara, none of these people seemingly did any sort of repentance before they were shot. None attempted to make good on his past sins. Yet, all have somehow been retconned to the point where their victimhood defines them as humans.
Michael Brown was labeled a gentle giant who had his hands up before police shot him. George Floyd is now a symbol for black oppression. Jacob Blake was visited by then-candidate Joe Biden in the hospital, while his running mate, Kamala Harris, met with his family. Rosenbaum, Huber, and Grosskreutz have been put on pedestals by certain individuals, including Senator Ron Johnson, who expressed his admiration for Rosenbaum by referring to him by his nickname, “Jojo.”
There are a few more names that need to be mentioned here: Tamara Durand, Jane Kulich, LeAnna Owen, Virgina Sorenson, Wilhelm Hospel, and Jackson Sparks. You don’t know these names because they aren’t important enough to be immortalized. But these are the six victims who perished in an intentional act of terrorism in Waukesha, Wisconsin, during a holiday parade. Jackson Sparks was just eight years old. At the time of writing, there are still more receiving treatment in the hospital, including 14 children. But these names are not important enough to publicize. Because they are the wrong type of victim, killed by the wrong type of criminal.
If Rebbe were alive today, who knows how many tears he would shed over the methods by which we determine who we revere in this world. Apparently, some can be immortalized in an instant, but others can be forgotten in a day.
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.