The biblical reading of Devarim always falls out on the Sabbath preceding Tisha Be’av, the fast commemorating the destruction of our Holy Temples. This is not merely an “accident” of the calendar; in our portion, Moses reviews his life and he cries out, “How [Eicha] can I bear your troublesomeness and your burdens and your belittling barbs?” (Deut. 1:12), a verse which begins with the same word that opens the Scroll of Lamentations (“How [Eicha] does she sit alone, the city filled with our nation.”) The Torah reader on the Sabbath chants the biblical verse Eicha with the same haunting melody used for the Eicha reading on Tisha Be’av.
What is the significance of the destruction of the Temple? How important could the Temple have been if Judaism managed to survive without it for the last 2,000 years? And how many modern Jews can really identify with the slaughter of animals as offerings in a Temple? By exploring a fundamental difference of opinion between two great Jewish leaders – Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Akiva – we can gain insight into the significance of our Temple, and the irretrievable loss we suffered as a result of its destruction.
As the Romans besieged Jerusalem, Rabbi ben Zakkai managed to leave the city and meet with Vespasian, the leader of the Roman armed forces carrying out the siege. The rabbi requested that the Romans spare the city of Yavne and its wise men, the Sanhedrin of sages.
Rabbi Yohanan was willing to relinquish Jerusalem and the Temple so long as the Jews could remain in Israel and maintain their ongoing interpretations of the Oral Law.
Approximately six decades later, Rabbi Akiva bitterly condemned this accommodating stance of the teacher (Rabbi Yohanan) of his two teachers (Rabbi Yehoshua and R. Eliezer) referring to a verse from the Prophet Isaiah which he applied to ben Zakkai: “God turns the sages backwards and transforms their wisdom into foolishness” (Isaiah 44:25) (B.T. Gittin 56b). Apparently, Rabbi Akiva believed that Rabbi Yohanan gave up too much too soon, that he should have continued to fight in order to retain Jerusalem and the Holy Temple.
Indeed, Rabbi Akiva put his ideas into practice by spearheading the Bar Kochba rebellion against Rome (135 CE) for the avowed purpose of Israel’s liberation of Jerusalem and rebuilding of the Holy Temple.
What was the fundamental difference of opinion between these sages? Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai believed that apart from the prohibitions of murder, sexual immorality and idolatry, the only value for which one may forfeit one’s life is the survival of the Jewish nation. This explains why the Bible introduces the concept of a life-endangering obligatory war (milhemet mitzva) for the sake of the conquering the Land of Israel at the dawn of our history, because without the Land of Israel there would never have developed a nation of Israel. Given the overwhelming might of the Roman Empire and the Roman armies, Rabbi Yohanan concluded that if the Land of Israel and the Torah of Israel could be secured – Yavne and its wise men – it would be unnecessary and even halachically unacceptable to risk the survival of the Jewish people in a war for Jerusalem and the Holy Temple.
Rabbi Akiva believed differently. He understood the function of the Holy Temple and Jerusalem as being cardinal to the mission of Israel, a holy nation and a kingdom of priest-teachers (to the world) through whom all of the families of the earth are to be blessed.
The people of Israel were entrusted to teach the world that God created every human being in His Divine image, that each individual must be free and inviolable, and that our God of love and morality demands a world of peace and security for all. The city from which this message must emanate is the City of Jerusalem, the City of Peace (Yeru Shalom); the mechanism by which this mission is to be advanced is the Holy Temple, the beacon from which the Torah will go forth to all nations of the world, impressing upon them how “swords must be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift sword above nation and humanity will not learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4). Rabbi Akiva believed that unless we disseminate this teaching to the world, there is no purpose to our national being; hence the centrality of our Messianic vision and the necessity of continuing to fight for Jerusalem and the Holy Temple.
Bar Kochba’s revolt ended in failure. The subsequent Hadrianic persecutions and the resulting Jewish exile wrought havoc upon our nation, and it became clear to the overwhelming majority of our sages that Rabbi Akiva was wrong and Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai had been correct. He had rescued Judaism by his initiating the “exchange” with Vespasian.
But our situation has radically changed. Contemporary history, post-Holocaust, teaches us that the nation of Israel cannot survive without a Jewish state and a Jewish army. We live in a global village where one madman with nuclear power can (God forbid) destroy the entire world. This teaches us that unless the inviolability of the human being and the universal acceptance of a God of peace becomes an axiom of all humanity, there will be no free humanity left in the world, and certainly no Jewish nation. Rabbi Akiva has been vindicated for our times; only by teaching fundamental absolute morality in our City of Peace can we secure the future of Israel and the free world.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone colleges and graduate programs, currently celebrating their 30th anniversary, and chief rabbi of Efrat. The fifth volume of his acclaimed Torah Lights series of parsha commentary was recently published by Koren Publishers.