WHEN WAS THE LAST time a Roman needed an excuse to kill Jews during the time of the Second Temple Period? Never.
And, if they ever needed one, they would have had no problem fabricating one:
There was once a Caesar who hated the Jews.
One day he said to the prominent members of the government, “If one has a wart on his foot, should he cut it
away and live [in comfort] or leave it on and suffer discomfort?” They replied:
“He should cut it away and live in comfort.” (Avodah Zarah 10b)
The wart to which the Caesar referred was the Jewish people, and he was looking for approval to
exterminate the Jews under his control.
Like so many anti-Semites before and after him, the Roman Emperor saw the Jewish population as a cancerous plague,
and wished to make the land Judenrein.
This makes the story of the Ten Martyrs that much more confusing.
The Romans had already destroyed the Temple and massacred thousands of Jews.
Countless rabbis had been accused of one violation or another, and publicly executed as a result.
Killing ten of the most important rabbis of the time would only have strengthened the hold of the Romans over
the defeated Jewish nation, and that was reason enough to murder them at will.
Yet, we are told, that is not the way it happened. Instead of impulsively and ruthlessly killing these rabbis,
the Caesar sought a pretext to carry out his diabolical plan.
And though, as a Roman, he could have used all kinds of Roman reasons to kill them, ironically,
he turned to the Torah for the basis of his accusations.
“What is the punishment for kidnapping a fellow Jew?” he asked some of the greatest
talmidei chachamim of the last 2,000 years.
“Capital punishment,” they answered.
“Yet,” he told them, “your ancestors kidnapped and sold their brother into slavery, and were never tried or executed!”
By this time, these rabbis had to have known where their Roman captor was going.
They had to have figured out that he was using an ancient miscarriage of justice as a pretext to
murder them in the present.
Ten rabbis for ten brothers; the math was perfect even if the reasoning was not.
Nevertheless, they played along.
They asked their accuser for three days to return with an answer, which is equally puzzling.
What had they planned to do during those three days that might change the situation,
and why did the Roman even grant it to them?
Had he been prepared to entertain an alternative ending for the story? Unlikely.
We are told what happened next.
Nine of the rabbis turned to Rebi Yishmael, who was the Kohen Gadol at that time,
and charged him with the mission of using a Divine Name to spiritually ascend in order to find
out Heaven’s take on the entire episode: what was actually happening from a historical point-of-view,
and what did God actually want from them?
The truth is, it was specifically the bizarreness of the circumstance that prompted them to behave this way.
Had the Roman gone after them like every other anti-Semite before him,
then they would have dealt with their captor like every other anti-Semite.
However, the uniqueness of his approach to their execution clued them in that something was occurring that
went beyond the moment, beyond their lives, beyond the Roman who wanted to take them in a most cruel manner:
This is from God, that which is wondrous in our eyes. (Tehillim 118:23)
Thus, though it was through a Roman that the message was being delivered,
the nature of the message indicated that it was God Who was doing the talking.
The greatest rabbis of the last 2,000 years saw past their flesh-and-blood enemy of the moment,
and saw themselves engaged, instead, in a high-level spiritual dialogue with He who runs all aspects of Creation,
including, and in this case especially, the Roman Caesar.
For though it is true anti-Semitism is a natural undercurrent of history until Moshiach comes,
still, it always occurs when it does, as it does, for a Divine reason.
And the more mysterious the circumstances, the more Divine the reason,
even when Jew perpetrates evil against Jew. Evil comes in all shapes and sizes,
and once a person becomes a vehicle for it,
he becomes a pawn in God’s master plan to shake up those are not evil,
but are in need of change.
After all, the Ten Martyrs were not only the greatest rabbis of the last two millennia,
they also consisted of the greatest Kabbalists of the last 2,000 years.
Their generation, especially, possessed the keys to perform miracles of a nature that could easily
have dispensed with the Caesar and his decrees:
From the beginning of the Second Temple Period, the Gates of Torah opened up,
and the light of the vision of the Merkavah became revealed,
as well as all the orders of Creation, and permission was given to anyone who wants
to come and take the Name . . .
For anyone who prepared himself to become sanctified with the upper holiness,
becoming one of the holy ones who always stand before God, the gates of light,
and all the secrets of Torah, opened, as well as the hidden storehouses of life,
in fulfillment of the verse:
“the righteous one, who rules through the fear of God” (II Shmuel 23:3).
(Sefer HaKlallim, Klal 2, Anaf 3, Os 9)
Thus, the issue for these rabbis was not how to stop Caesar,
but whether or not doing so missed the point of what God wished for them,
and all of Creation, at that time.
Sometimes it is enough to merely protest against evil,
to take a stand and some kind of action against it,
in order to avert a Divine decree.
The fact that the Torah world wakes up to a problem and shows care and concern can be,
on many occasions, enough to rectify it above, from below.
However, at other times, it is not enough.
Sometimes Creation is so far down the garden path that protest and simple actions are not
nearly enough to put history back on course, at least not without some kind of dramatic
response from man below.
This was the question the Martyrs had for above, and this was the answer they received from Gavriel:
Rebi Yishmael, upon hearing the verdict,
purified himself and ascended to the heavens to inquire whether or not the decree on earth was also
decreed in the heavenly court. He was informed by the angel Gavriel, “Accept this upon yourselves,
righteous and beloved ones, for I heard from behind the heavenly curtain that you have been ensnared
in this [decree].” (Mussaf, Yom Kippur)
Hence, the entire episode was not just about anti-Semitism, or a well-read, scheming Roman Caesar.
All of that was the sideshow, only the vehicle to bring about a far more dramatic result,
one that was so fundamental to the continuance of Creation that without it the world would
have been returned back to null and void:
The celestial Seraphim cried out bitterly, “Is this the Torah and this its reward!”
A voice from Heaven responded, “If I hear another sound, I will transform the universe to water,
I will turn the earth to null and void!” (Eileh Ezkarah, Mussaf, Yom Kippur)
The only question remaining, for now, is,
was the part about Yosef’s brothers selling him also just a vehicle to bring about
tikun olam—world rectification—or was it the reason for it? If the former, then we need only
focus on what was wrong with the world at the time that history took the lives of these ten
precious souls, to appreciate why their deaths were necessary, and the resultant impact on history.
However, if the latter is the case, then it may turn out that the sale of Yosef was far more than just a
Biblical event that once occurred, and ended with Yosef’s family reunification in Egypt.
In fact, it may be that the sale of Yosef is the stormy undercurrent that has been disrupting Jewish history ever since,
and will continue to do so until history, as we know it, reaches its end at the threshold of the Messianic Era.