The Talmudic storyteller brings us to the room where Rabbi is dying:
On the day that Rabbi [Judah, the Prince] died, the Rabbis decreed a fast and they prayed. They said: Let anyone who says, “Rabbi has died,” be skewered on a sword.
His maidservant went up to the roof and said: The heavenly ones desire Rabbi, and the earthly ones desire Rabbi. May it be God’s will that the earthly prevail over the heavenly. When she saw how many times he had to get up to go to the toilet, painfully removing and then rewinding his phylacteries, she said: May it be God’s will that the heavenly ones overcome the earthly ones.
Now, the Rabbis never ceased their praying.
She took a pitcher and threw it from the roof.
They ceased praying and Rabbi died.
The Rabbis said to their colleague, Bar Kapparah: Go and investigate. He went and found that Rabbi had died. He tore his garment and turned the rip towards the back so that no one would see it. He began by saying: Angels and mortals have seized the Holy Ark and the angels have prevailed over the mortals; the Holy Ark has been captured.
They said to him: He has died? He said to them: You are the ones who have said it; I have not said it.
At the moment that he was about to die, Rabbi spread out his ten fingers towards the sky and said: Master of the world, it is well known to you that I labored in Torah with all of my ten fingers but didn’t make a profit from even the work of my little finger. May it be your will that there be peacefulness in my rest.
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Here, as in every ancient story of the sages, Rabbi, with no name attached refers to none other than Rabbi Judah, the Prince. Such was his authority and prestige: To say merely, Rabbi, was to speak of him.
Rabbi’s bed is surrounded by disciples. With their ceaseless prayers, they keep him alive. In their anxiety, they issue a grave warning against demoralizing speech. Even the slightest murmur—“is he dead? It looks like he might have died!”—could break their life sustaining focus enough to lose him.
Now, the storyteller brings us from the room to the roof above where the maidservant has gone—perhaps to add her prayers as she tends to the business of the household.
Rabbi’s name is unnecessary. The lowly maid’s name is unknown. Yet, she is the hero of the story. She literally stands above the sages—on the roof—in the middle of the great struggle between heaven and earth for the life of the beloved master. At first, she joins the tug-of-war on the side of the sages. But, from her rooftop perspective, her insight becomes both higher and deeper than that of the frantic sages.
Compassion and empathy inform the maid’s new prayer which she translates into successful deed, tipping the balance in the struggle for Rabbi in favor of heaven. In dramatic contrast to the sages who fight to hold on to their master’s life, she understands both the impulse to hold and the need to let go.
We imagine the drama: The jar thrown from the roof explodes and the sages stop praying to run outside. Just then, alone and free, Rabbi stretches his hands towards heaven, towards the roof, his spread fingers emphasizing the summing of his life offered to the listening ear of God (and to the ear of the handmaid?).
Spread fingers grasp nothing and offer everything—such was Rabbi’s life of openhanded Torah teaching. In keeping with the life he has lived, Rabbi hopes to enter what the poet, Neruda, calls the eternity of transparent hands.
The body, as Bar Kapparah said to his companions, is the ark that has been captured; but it is not the Torah within.