Throughout the long centuries of exile, the message of Tisha Be’av – which marks the destruction of the First and Second Temples – was largely about suffering.
Exiled from their land for their sins, the Jewish people were doomed to remain a wandering nation until the advent of the messianic era. Tisha Be’av fit into a larger religious narrative of persecutions and martyrdom that helped preserve and give cohesion to the communities of the Diaspora.
Zionism, a largely secular political movement, sought to, and ultimately succeeded in, changing the course of Jewish history. Even though the state was established in the shadow of the Holocaust, the narrative was no longer principally about suffering and exile but about taking control of Jewish destiny and overcoming adversity. For many Zionists, Tisha Be’av’s message appeared to be anachronistic. What relevance could the story of destruction and exile have for a nation engaged in homecoming and rebuilding? Indeed, the descriptions in the prayer book of Jerusalem as a desolate, ruined city seem incongruous with reality. Never before has Jerusalem been so built up and populated as today.
However, the story of Tisha Be’av is based on the premise that the Jewish people’s success and continuity as a nation depend on its own actions. Destruction and exile are the consequences of internecine fighting, disunity and baseless hatred. Jewish sovereignty of the Land of Israel is conditional upon the nation’s moral conduct. For religious Jews, God’s covenant with the Jewish people is central to this conditionality.
Mysteriously, a God who intervenes in history chose the Jewish people and brought them to the Land of Israel, but made their continued existence here conditional upon their behavior. The Jewish people were expected to espouse justice in interpersonal relations. If they failed to, they would be exiled.
But one does not need to be religiously observant to understand that the health and strength of a society depend upon its ethical behavior. Corruption, totalitarianism and repression often result in a breakdown of society. It is no coincidence that liberal democracies, which provide their citizens with human rights and freedoms, have succeeded, while the evil empires of the 20th century – Fascism, Nazism and Communism – ultimately collapsed.
Because Tisha Be’av marks historical events involving the Jewish people’s previous periods of sovereignty, it has unique resonance and pertinence for Israel today. Our sages teach that the Second Temple was destroyed due to “baseless hatred” among Jews. At the time, the Jewish people were acrimoniously divided rather than harmoniously united.
The lesson is clear: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
There may not be direct parallels between contemporary Israel and the infighting among the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots that preceded the destruction of the Temple. But we may draw some general conclusions: Religious extremism is destructive; an inability to unite against an enemy can lead to defeat; and a sober recognition of a nation’s limitations is essential for its survival. Israelis, religious or not, understand that the strength of our society is determined not only on the battlefield. More important is the extent to which we safeguard freedoms, uphold justice, maintain morality and encourage an atmosphere that permits self-criticism that makes our society strong. Soldiers fighting for a free and open society have an advantage over the totalitarian regimes that often provoke wars. These soldiers know that justice is on their side.
During Operation Protective Edge, when soldiers were ordered into Gaza to protect all Israeli civilians, regardless of their race or religion, from Hamas rockets and terrorist tunnels, they were emboldened for the same reasons. They are fighting a just war against barbaric terrorism.
It should be stressed that we – unlike some of our enemies – do not rejoice at the devastation caused by the hostilities, especially the loss of lives. The IDF may be the most moral army in the world, but that does not mean tragic mistakes are not made, particularly when Hamas insists on using its civilians as human shields.
When we contemplate the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people and the State of Israel, we should find a place in our hearts to feel the pain caused by the current conflict – not only for the heartbreaking deaths of 64 soldiers and three civilians, but for the hundreds of Palestinian civilians in Gaza – men, women and children – who have been killed by IDF fire in an effort to stop Hamas’s deadly attacks on Israeli communities.
While the destruction of the Temple reminds us of our own people’s vulnerability, it does not mean we cannot feel empathy for the suffering of another people, even if its own leaders are the primary cause of that suffering. In the shadow of Operation Protective Edge, Tisha Be’av’s message is more relevant than ever.