It’s often difficult to properly appreciate the piety of the Jewish sages. Their deeds are often so hidden and elusive that we can’t help but think “what’s the big deal”? Not only that, but as it happens, the levels above us always seem like insanity, and we are overcome with fear and incredulity, which is precisely what prevents us from coming closer to Hashem.
One of the most important Tannaim that is quote in the Talmud was certainly Rabbi Tarfon, a kohen, who lived to see the destruction of the Second Holy Temple and the crushing of the insurrection of Betar. Often disputing Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Tarfon is known for his leniency (a mark of Chesed/Lovingkindnes) in his rulings while at the same time siding with Shammai (whose source is from Gevurah/Stringency). This paradox can be understood in light of the fact that many Tzaddikim were strict with themselves, but lenient towards the people who couldn’t afford the burden.
As part of the 10 Martyrs
According to Eicha Rabbah, Rabbi Tarfon was one of the 10 Holy Martyrs who died sanctifying Hashem’s name. There are incredible secrets surrounding these Tzaddikim, some of which we will try to explain. Note that the explanation here is not extensive as Hashem always uses events for an infinite variety of purposes together.
We all know that the 10 holy martyrs also atoned for the sale of Yosef himself and the reason for this is that, as the Arizalexplains, they each had the Ibur (pregnancy) of one of the sons of Yaakov Avinu. This story is well known and we will not delve on that.
According to the Zohar, Yosef was literally 4 seconds away from sinning with the wife of his master Potifar. Some commentators like Rashi write that he was actually giving in to her temptations (after a full year of holding himself) and ready to sin. However, according some Breslov sources, in coming so close to sin and overpowering it, he was in fact “putting a knife in the eye” of the evil inclination and opening a new source of strength for men throughout the generations to withstand their challenges.
Be that as it may, the Zohar teaches that since he came so close to the act, 10 drops of seed came out from his 10 toenails. Because he was the prototypical Tzaddik himself, representing the Sephira of Yesod, these incredibly high drops became the vestments of the souls of the 10 holy martyrs, which were taken by the evil side and had to atone with their lives later on.
But there’s a lot more than that.
The Secret of Feminine Waters
Some Kabbalists write that if you know the “Secret of Feminine and Masculine Waters”, then you know a pretty good deal, since the whole of Kabbalah can be viewed as a confluence of these 2 forces in infinite levels.
Back during the Second Temple, the Jewish People were going through one of the lowliest points in history and the world was on the verge of total destruction. This is because there’s a principle that Hashem retracts his presence when there’s not sufficient merit in the generation.
According to Kabbalah when there’s a positive desire below (feminine waters), there’s a returning positive desire from above (masculine waters). This interplay is needed to maintain the balance of the universe between reward and punishment, while keeping free choice between good and evil. It also sustains the world, both physically and spiritually.
Yet, when there’s not enough merit, Hashem takes out his gifts from us, like Tzaddikim and children, God forbid. And one of the very great gifts Hashem had to take from us was the Second Temple. But sadly, that was still not enough.
The Arizal explains that the 10 Holy Martyrs were needed in order to serve as conduits (or helpers) of feminine waters until the end of the generations since the people could not elevate them anymore. These 10 sages, however, were so elevated that their mere bodies were more elevated than even the Neshamot of the other people! Their deaths were necessary to continue the order of Creation and that they keep on elevating the feminine waters.
During Shacharit, we see this principle in the Hodu prayer which contains the verse “El Nekamot Hashem, El NekamotHofiah” (God of Vengeance is Hashem, God of Vengeance Will Appear). In Sha’ar HaKavanot (Gate of Mystical Intentions) from Rabbi Chaim Vital, we learn that we need to have the Kavanah (mystical intention) that the souls of the 10 martyrs are coming to help us elevate the fallen sparks to become feminine waters, every day, except Sephirat Ha’Omer and the High Holidays.
There’s a dispute on where Rabbi Tarfon is interred. According to the Arizal, it’s in Kadita, but according to the Ohalei Tzaddikim organization, it’s in Meron. Nevertheless, the Rambam writes in Hilchot Avelut (laws mourning) that we don’t build for Tzaddikim a tent or fancy tombstones, since “their deeds are their remembrances” for eternity.
May the merit of Rabbi Tarfon and the other martyrs be for a blessing and inspiration to all of us!