Rabbi Yohanan Reads the Book of Job

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Dan Ornstein

Each time Rabbi Yohanan finished teaching the book of Job, he would say this: 

The end of human beings is to die.
The end of animals is to be slaughtered.
And all living things are destined for death.

Blessed is the person who grew up on Torah, who has labored in the study of Torah, who makes his Creator proud, who has grown up with a good name and who departs from the world with a good name.
Concerning that person, King Solomon taught, ‘A good name is better than precious oil. And the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth.’

The audience files out of the grape arbor in the stone courtyard, whose tendrils cling to the courtyard walls, as the leaves hang over the heads of those seeking shade from the heat. Everything about this retreat hints at an uneasy repose, the result of a standoff between Yohanan’s public demeanor and his private anguish. He wrote those final words to his famous lecture on Job when he was a much younger man. The people from all around would flock to hear his teachings―especially from the ancient book about the suffering of the righteous―his erudition matched only by his glibness.

This was all before his sons were born, before each of them died, before he took the pinky bone of his tenth child to show it to other bereaved parents: “I know how grisly grief can be! Look, here’s my tenth son’s bone.” At times, the words are platitudes collecting like moss on the surface of his tongue, blanketing the faithful with the warm, woody comforts of dogma: “Blessed is the good Jewish boy or girl who keeps the faith despite the suffering.” Other times, the words are jagged blades that lacerate his showcased life; they cut into him over and over, ripping open his heart repeatedly: “They all died for no reason, and we wind up dead, no different from the beasts.”

Before the boys died, Yohanan kept using this end to his lecture, because it balanced so well his practiced air of reflection with a touch of hopeful inspiration. After they were gone, he couldn’t bear to change it, for it was one last fragile link to the innocent time before he lost them all. His concluding flourish stayed the same as well. He would roll up his Job scroll and bang his fist on his stone lecturer’s table with a heavy, dramatic thud: “And so we see, my friends, that the fate of humans and the fate of animals are the same. We’re all doomed, except that we human beings have the glorious opportunity to bask in the glow of God’s light through Torah and a good name before we die.” The people would clap furiously, then grab a drink and some grapes upon leaving the arbor. Some rabbinical student always gushed, “He’s soooo inspiring, especially when you consider all he’s been through!”

Alone at the podium, his scroll opened again, Yohanan would whisper after him, “Be quiet, boy, and assume nothing about me. They’re just words.”

Beneath the performance and his theater face, Yohanan digs deep into the bone shard pile of his memory and grief, Job’s story his spade. Reading the text aloud, he struggles to exhume the righteous man with ten dead children, in a desperate attempt to make Job’s traumatic drama―the conclusion especially―his own. It is a fairy-tale ending, in which God restores the suffering tzaddik’s fortunes and health―“and brings his ten children back to life, can you believe it?”―a resurrective consolation prize of biblical proportions.

Yohanan wants to reach the bottom of Job’s brokenness so he can begin to climb back up toward consolation, a father rendered so fragile along the lines of the re-glued cracks, who is at least whole again, as he pieces together his own potsherd life. And each time, he trips, facedown, over the merciless verse…

*          *          *

“You have incited Me against him, to destroy him for no good reason” (Job 2:3).
When Rabbi Yoḥanan reached this verse in which God spoke to the Adversary angel about Job, he wept aloud: When a slave’s master is incited by others to act harshly against the slave, and his master follows suit, is there any remedy for the slave?

He slumps over the stone table, fantasizing that he is witnessing God’s wager with the Adversary, God’s celestial prosecutor. The Adversary goads God: “Lay Your hand upon all Job has, as well as his bones and his flesh, and he will surely curse You to Your face.” God takes the Adversary up on the bet, giving him almost free reign to make Job a pawn in this cruel experiment. When Yohanan reads this scene aloud, of God talking about the Adversary’s incitement, he sobs violently. He, like Job, is the slave against whom the Master has been incited, with no remedy or justice available to either of them. He imagines himself peering over the open graves of each of his children and sees Job reflected back at him.

As he recovers from his daymare, the merciless verse still stares at him. He recalls with shame commenting on it in one of his classes so long ago…

If the author of Job hadn’t put these words―‘You have incited Me against him’―in God’s mouth, it would be impossible for us to say them. God is comparing God’s self to a person who is easily incited to hurt another person, just as God so easily hurt Job.
We know that God would never do that!

His eyes shut tight, the words echo in his head, as he thinks about the man and woman who sat in the back of the arbor that distant-past morning, their faces haggard and drawn, because of what he later learned had been the recent tragic death of their child. Job’s disciples in suffering, they had come to the lecture in a desperate search for something that would kill their pain, or at least numb it. Yohanan imagines their disappointed stares fixed on him, as they call to him, hoarsely, “Rabbi, do we know that God would never do that?”

Assi, one of his disciples, walks quietly into the arbor and sits, waiting patiently beside him and looking down at the verse where Yohanan’s finger rests. Assi’s friends refer to him as mofet ha-dor, the prodigy of the age, but Yohanan calls him menahem ha-dor, the consoler of the age. The others are good souls and fine students; but only Assi is able to listen to his ever-repeating anguish with an exquisitely attuned ear and a penetrating heart.

“The merciless verse again?”

Yohanan is almost unable to look at him, his tears having formed a pasty glue over his eyelids. What he still preaches in public stopped being what he truly believes long ago. He suddenly pounds his fist on the table and breathes in sharply, hissing…

Why did all this suffering afflict Job? Didn’t God say about him that he was blameless and upright, that he feared God and shunned evil? What greater human qualities could he have possessed? Is this an example of God’s justice―incitement by a celestial being into toying with a man’s life to make a point? If this is how God treated Job, I shudder to think about the rest of us.

Assi gently places his hand on his teacher’s shoulder, but Yohanan brusquely pushes it off. He knows well that Yohanan’s rage is not actually about Job, but he has run out of tools to get Yohanan to speak honestly about his own grief. His teacher consumes the sadness and vomits it out in the form of abstract arguments and scriptural sidewinding through merciless verses and bizarre bone viewings. They wait together quietly in the briefest of pauses, one that stretches for Assi into the length of a winter night. He knows that when Yohanan enters this place of his grief, it will not do to merely sit silently with him. One more time, certainly not the last, Assi prepares to walk with his friend and teacher the interminable distance between God’s promised justice and the injustice that is reality. This time, Assi will put away the cliches and platitudes about God and suffering that have become so common in his circles, that only comfort the comforters…

Even if the most gruesome afflictions had come upon Job, he still would have deserved none of them as any kind of punishment. The words of that merciless verse, “You have incited Me against him,” are so difficult to accept, because God doesn’t make mistakes and wouldn’t be duped into doing such a thing. Why does the verse have God say this, Yohanan? Job never deserved to suffer like that, even to test his piety.

His hand rests once again on Yohanan’s shoulder, and now Yohanan leans into him like a baby falling into its mother’s embrace. For the moment, Yohanan has dug all he can to the lowest stratum of the burial mound of his loss, all his and Job’s ancestral God dogmas tossed aside like back dirt. Assi has shared his anguish in the form of question marks that seem to float in midair, furiously protesting the absurdity of divine logic. And Assi’s steadying hand has returned faithfully to support Yohanan’s body, offering him gently, wordlessly, the blessed chance to stand up, be healed, and move forward.

Time passes. Yohanan stops by the house of his student, Hiyya:

Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba became ill.
Rabbi Yohanan went to visit him.
He asked Hiyya, “Is your suffering precious to you?”
Hiyya said to him, “Neither it nor my reward for it from God are precious to me.”
Yohanan said to him, “Give me your hand.”
Hiyya gave him his hand and Yohanan raised him up, restored to health.

*          *          *

Afterword: An Archaeology of Grief

Set in the context of ancient Near Eastern biographies, the tales of the rabbinic sages seek truth not in what literally took place but, as Jeffrey Rubenstein explains, in “the eternal truths that the meaning of the life of their subject held for others.”[1] As such, at least a part of the biography of the renowned sage Rabbi Yohanan bar Nappaha (Eretz Yisrael, third century CE) can be assumed to be more didactic than historical. In the contemporary midrash above I bring together disparate story fragments about Yohanan reading the biblical book of Job. This is especially significant since Yohanan shares with Job the tragic experience of having lost ten children (Berakhot 5b).[2]

I have gathered these and other fragments about Yohanan from an array of sources―including the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds―and woven them together into a fictional account of one part of his life. A most intriguing source I have used is a version of one of the Talmudic stories found in Midrash Iyov (“Midrash on Job”). This is an anthology of previously scattered comments on Job from numerous classical and medieval commentators on the book, which often refer to an aggadah d’Iyov (aggadic explanations of Job) or a midrash aher, an anonymous midrashic collection.[3] These were culled and edited by Solomon Aaron Wertheimer in the late nineteenth century and were included in Batei Midrashot, his collection of midrashic works that were discovered in the Cairo Genizah. Wertheimer asserted that an original Midrash Iyov was compiled by Rabbi Hoshaiah Rabbah (Eretz Yisrael, third century CE), then was subsequently lost centuries later.[4] He reconstructed what he believed to be Rabbi Hoshaiah’s original compilation.

Above, I referred to Yohanan’s fictional backstory as “contemporary midrash.” Weaving together disparate sources to creatively tell a sage’s story has precedent in modern Jewish works; a particularly well-known example is Rabbi Milton Steinberg’s As A Driven Leaf, his novel about the tragic life of the tannaitic sage Elisha ben Avuyah. Bialik and Ravnitzsky’s work, Sefer Ha-Aggadah, adopts a less imaginative―though no less useful―approach by anthologizing disparate rabbinic sources about the sages to provide a more unified and simplified picture of their lives. My interest in telling Yohanan’s “backstory” in this manner is pastoral, spiritual, and psychological. Aggadot about Yohanan’s turbulent life and relationships peek out from behind the tight lattice work of his vast halakhic discourse, particularly those about his bereaved parenthood, his hypersensitivity, and his tortured relationship with Reish Lakish—his friend, colleague, and brother-in-law. The repeated statements about Yohanan’s weeping, including over Job 2:3, recently captured my attention as I learned the first chapter of the Talmudic tractate Hagigah, where I first encountered some of them.[5]

In this fictional account I have tried to imagine the spiritual and emotional struggles of the man weeping over Job who stands just behind the public rabbinic personality, drawing on an earlier paper in which I explored Yohanan’s personal life and rabbinic legacy.[6] As a congregational rabbi of many years, I believe this richer picture of Yohanan can offer spiritual and professional insight for those of us in education, the rabbinate, and the helping professions generally. More broadly, it invites all of us to accompany Yohanan on his journeys of struggle and growth, as we struggle with our own religious faith when faced with evil and personal suffering.

The image of Yohanan as a grieving father struggling to make sense of his loss is told through his fixation on Job 2:3. There, God says to Satan, the divine Adversary, “You have incited Me against him [Job], to destroy him for no good reason” (Job 2:3). My main, though not exclusive, criteria for choosing rabbinic sources for this fictional work is whether they quote or reference this “merciless verse.” It is this verse that repeatedly causes Yohanan to weep and wonder about the proverbial servant whose (divine) Master is incited by others to behave cruelly against the servant.[7] Another general criterion for choosing sources is whether they tell a story about Yohanan’s encounter with the book of Job.

The subtitle of this story and essay is “an archaeology of grief,” a phrase I employ in two ways. In the first sense, Yohanan digs deep below his public persona as a religious leader to struggle, in his rage and bewilderment, with God for wounding Job. He sees his own intense grief and pain reflected in Job’s story, which he tries to comprehend so that he can begin to heal; he does this even though, like an archaeologist whose work is impeded by rock and debris, he constantly gets stuck on the words of “the merciless verse,” Job 2:3. In the second sense, the story I have written about Yohanan is a kind of literary archaeology. Like an archaeologist seeking to reconstruct an artifact from the shards found at a site, I have attempted to rebuild a larger narrative about this rabbinic sage’s life based on story fragments that are scattered throughout the Talmud and other rabbinic writings. Certainly, I owe some of my inspiration to Rabbi Wertheimer, whose own midrashic archaeology yielded us the reconstructed Midrash Iyov.[8]

Each rabbinic source upon which I have drawn is italicized and then interspersed with my own writing about Yohanan reading and imagining Job. To allow the reader to approach the story as a piece of fiction, not an essay, I have refrained from adding endnote numbers to each of these italicized sources. The sources to which each italicized section corresponds, respectively, are: Berakhot 17a, Hagigah 5a, Bava Batra 16a, Wertheimer’s Batei Midrashot, p. 163, and Berakhot 5b. The reference to R. Assi as a mofet ha-dor is found in Hullin 103b. Rabbi Yohanan’s reputation as a renowned teacher to whose lectures large numbers of people flocked is a tradition found in y. Horayot 3:4, 48b. Together, these seemingly unrelated rabbinic statements can paint a picture of depth, humanity, and our struggles with the divine.

In her novel, Where Reasons End, Yiyun Li imagines having a long talk with her dead son who died from suicide at age seventeen. Li writes that “a mother’s job is to enfold, not to unfold.”[9] As Yohanan seeks to unfold the reasons for his and Job’s children’s deaths, he discovers that this is futile, bringing only more rage and suffering. All he can do is wrap his love around his children―keeping them preserved in his broken, traumatized memory―and then extend that enfolding-in-love to others who suffer, with whom he walks a fragile return path toward wholeness.

[1] Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 6.

[2] See the comment of Rabbeinu Nissim Gaon there. Also, Job 1:18-20.

[3] One of the major works that quotes extensively from the original aggadic work is Isaac ben Solomon Ha-Kohen’s Sefer Iyov Im Perush (Constantinople, 1545/5305). In his introduction to Midrash Iyov, Solomon Aaron Wertheimer mentions finding numerous comments on Job in Ha-Kohen’s book that have not been traced to known midrashic or Talmudic sources. These, he asserts, were part of the original Midrash Iyov. Extensive references to this ancient work are also found in Israel al-Nakkawa’s Menorat Ha-Maor (Part 4) and Meir ben Isaac Arama’s commentary, Sefer Meir Iyov.

[4] Solomon Aaron Wertheimer, ed., Batei Midrashot, vol. 2 (Jerusalem: Ketav Va-Sefer Publishers, 1988), 156.

[5] These accounts of Yohanan’s weeping are part of a larger, intriguing collection of brief stories about sages weeping (see Hagigah 4b-5a).

[6] Dan Orstein, “Rabbi Yochanan, Wounded and Wounding Healer,” CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly, LXIX/II, (Spring 2022): 108-124.

[7] Thank you to Miriam Zami for pointing out to me the extensive sugya in Bava Batra 15a-16b about Job and Abraham, in which Yohanan’s comments figure prominently.

[8] My deepest thanks to Rabbi Burton Visotzky, Mr. Yitzchak Francus, and Ms. Marian Alexander for their guidance as I prepared this story and essay.

[9] Yiyun Li, Where Reasons End: A Novel (New York: Random House, 2021), 5.

Dan Ornstein is the rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, a writer, and a day school Judaic Studies teacher living with his family in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (Jewish Publication Society, 2020).