Verbal Oppression

Jessie: The end of the midrash on Baba Metzia 59b is very odd. Why would the banishment (cherem) of R. Eliezer be considered wrongful oppression (ona-ah) such that if R. Eliezer said tachanun, God would immediately avenge others on behalf R. Eliezer?

Rabbi: The story is quite detailed...let's review. 

In a specific case, Rabbi Eliezer argued against the rest of the Rabbis, holding the position that certain foods were permissible, while the Rabbis argued that the foods were unfit for consumption. The Torah teaches that in cases where Rabbinic opinions are divided, we must rule in accord with the majority. This Torah principle makes sense, for this process ensures a better chance that we are acting in accord with the Torah's intent. Certainly, if one person contradicts the many, we can safely assume the one person to have erred, and all the other Rabbis to have arrived at the truth. Since all but one Rabbi side with an opinion, the Torah holds "deviation" to be the "infrequent" occurrence among those who uphold Torah (the Rabbis). The Torah finds it more difficult to suggest that all the Rabbis deviated except for one. Thus, we follow the majority opinion.

  In our case, Rebbe Eliezer was the single (minority) view that opposed all others. Therefore, his view must not be followed. Surprisingly, Rabbi Eliezer pushed forth his opinion four times, stating time after time, "If the law is in accord with me, let such and such happen" to validate his position. And each time, what R. Eliezer said should happen, had occurred. First a carob tree leaped 100 cubits, then the waters flowed backwards, the walls of the Torah study started to fall, and even a heavenly voice endorsed R. Eliezer! Amazing, if taken literally. But of course, each case is a metaphor. Why do I say these are metaphors? This is because a "heavenly voice" saying R. Eliezer is correct, cannot be literal. For God will not contradict His Torah that teaches "Torah decisions are not in heaven".  Therefore, God would not cause a voice to be heard saying otherwise. But as our Talmudic portion says this happened, it must not be taken literally.  So how do we understand this?

R. Eliezer meant to convey that he was so certain of his position, that even the natural world complies with his findings. Thus, he said the carob tree should prove him right, and the tree "leaped 100 cubits". A trees represents a natural object. He said further, "let the waters prove me right" and the waters reversed their direction. Meaning, not only creation sided with him, but even natural "law" sided with Rabbi Eliezer's view. But the Rabbis didn't concede.  So R. Eliezer continued, "If the law is as I say, let the Torah study hall walls fall down". And they started to do so, until R. Joshua halted them with his argument. The Talmud says the walls didn't return to their original position in respect to R. Eliezer, nor did they continue falling, in respect to R. Joshua's position. This means both Rabbis had merit. What was their "merit"?

There are in fact two realities: 1) Torah rulings made by man, and even if incorrect, they must be followed, and 2) what God knows to be certain truth. R. Eliezer was correct that the goal of Torah study is to arrive at truth. But he felt absolute truth – what God knows as true – must trump what man achieves through halacha. God is certainly correct! And R. Eliezer was convinced that he uncovered the absolute truth in this case. This is why he kept pushing forth his opinion, and this is what it means that all these "miracles" occurred. The Talmud is teaching that R. Eliezer did in fact uncover the truth, as the universe complied with that truth by way of metaphor. That's why the walls did as he said.  This metaphoric portion means that R. Eliezer's Talmudic approach (walls of the study hall) were right on target. However, R. Joshua said that once Torah was given at Sinai, the principle now is that we must arrive at laws without God's intervention but only through man's knowledge via majority opinions. This rendered R. Eliezer's position as null. This is why the walls ceased to fall, in respect to R. Joshua's argument. But both Rabbis had merit, so the walls did not fall any further, but they also did not return upright. This metaphor means that both opinions possessed truth: R. Eliezer did uncover the absolute truth about this law, but R. Joshua was also correct in terms of how man must behave. Hs view was that it is not man's task to live by God's absolute truths, but to use human intellect – however frail – and determine law in this manner alone.

The, the Talmud continues and says Rabbi Nassan found Elijah the prophet and asked what God was doing at that moment. Elijah said God was saying "My children have succeeded over Me, My children have succeeded over Me". This metaphor endorses the idea we just discussed, that God does know the absolute truth, but He gave man a Torah through which we are to determine our Torah behaviors (halacha) regardless if we do not arrive at what God knows to be true. That we "succeeded over God" means that Rabbi Joshua was right to dismiss any "heavenly signs" of truth and follow human reason alone. Although God knows what is "absolute" truth, man succeeds when following his frail mind, as this is God's plan. "Success" is therefore measured not in terms of the results (i.e., our matching God's knowledge), but the "process" – using intelligence and Torah principles as God desires. As man follows his mind, and this is all we have, we cannot function more perfectly. This is preferred over seeking to arrive at absolute truths, if the process does not follow Torah principles.  

Eventually, Rabbi Akiva breaks the news to Rabbi Eliezer that his fellow Rabbis have distanced themselves a bit from him for his deviation.  We then read "Wherever Rabbi Eliezer looked, that place was burned. This does not mean he possessed powers, but that R. Eliezer could no longer enjoy life, as if the earth was destroyed before his eyes. 

"Rabbi Gamliel too was at sea and a storm threatened his life. He realized this was due to his rejection of Rabbi Eliezer for his not following the principle of "Majority Rule". Rabbi Gamliel stood and prayed to God, "I did this (banishment of R. Eliezer) not for my honor or the honor of my father, but for Your honor that Torah not be destroyed." The storm subsided."  Now we must ask, why would God cause this "storm", He knew that Rabbi Gamliel was in the right?  Unless, this is yet another metaphor, detected from the clue found in the text: "Rabbi Gamliel too..."  What does this word "too" indicate? 

This account follows the metaphor that all places at which R. Eliezer looked, were burned. We can then say as follows: just as R. Eliezer was the cause of his own pain and the Earth was not literally burned, but rather offered him no happiness any more (as if burned) too, R. Gamliel was the cause of the storm. He must have been troubled over putting R. Eliezer through such grief, despite its necessity.  R. Gamliel still felt for R. Eliezer, and was not careful about his sailing direction. He ended up off course, in troubled waters. It wasn't until he collected himself through prayer, that the storm ceased. This was not a case of Divine interaction, but R. Gamliel "too" was the cause of his sorrow, just like R. Eliezer. Once R. Gamliel had presence of mind, we was able to avert the storm.

The final portion of this Talmudic discussion states that R. Eliezer's wife, Aima Shalom, never allowed R. Eliezer to express his grief by reciting the Tachanun prayer. Once, she thought it was the New Month (when Tachanun is not recited) and she left him at home. But she erred, as it was a typical weekday. She found R. Eliezer reciting Tachanun upon her return. Se said "My brother Rabbi Gamilel is dead."  News then reached them that this was so.  Surprised, R. Eliezer asked his wife Aima Shalom how she knew this, and she said she had a tradition from her family (she was a descendant of the princes from the house of David) that although other gates are closed, the gate of oppression is always open, and God knows and responds to those who are oppressed. Thus, as Rabbi Eliezer expressed the grieving Tachanun prayer, he must have also expressed some of his grief of being banished. Aima Shalom then surmised that God must have avenged her husbands oppressor, her brother Rabbi Gamliel, who initiated the banishment. That's why she said he is dead. 

It took time Jessie, but now we can approach your question: "Why would the banishment of R. Eliezer be considered wrongful oppression (ona-ah) such that if R. Eliezer said tachanun, God would immediately avenge others on behalf R. Eliezer?  As one of the Rishonim cite, R. Gamliel didn't truly banish R. Eliezer. Had Rabbi Gamliel truly banished Rabbi Eliezer for violating the principle of following the majority, you are right: why would Rabbi Gamliel pay a price of death for accurately following Torah, if banishment was warranted?  Perhaps then, the fact that Rabbi  Gamliel "died" (whatever this means here) means that there was no official banishment. And what occurred was mere oppression of a fellow Jew. Thus, one who oppresses his fellow, without acting in accord with laws of banishment, will himself be punished. Meaning, either cherem (banishment) or nothing at all. One is sinful if he acts with any hostility outside the parameters of Torah banishment. Perhaps R. Gamliel expressed some dismay at R. Eliezer without banishing him and this is called "ona'as devarim", verbal oppression.

Having come this far, can we explain why that is; that although other "gates" are closed, the gate of oppression is always open, meaning God knows and always responds to those who are verbally oppressed?