There are many thoughts that come to our minds as we enter the period of the nine days that lead to Tisha Be'av. The tragedy of the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the cessation of Jewish independence, the beginning of the second exile, also occupied the minds of the Sages. They sought an explanation of this catastrophe. Was it God's will and if so, why?
"Because of our sins we were exiled from our land" became the general explanation. But what sins? Surely those sins that the prophets had railed against in the period of the First Temple - idolatry, sexual immorality, bloodshed - did not seem to be present at this later time. Therefore they said that the sin now was that they hated one another and that was an even more grievous sin than those (Tosefta Menahot 13:22-23). The story of Kamza and Bar Kamza emphasized the seriousness of shaming another person in public (Gittin 55b). Another explanation was that they acted according to the strict laws of the Torah "and did not go beyond the requirements of the law" (Baba Metzia 30b).
Of course the Sages were not so naÃ¯ve as to ignore the factor of the overwhelming strength of the Roman Empire and the fact that revolting against Rome was doomed from the start. Rather they were trying to point out that the moral strength of a society determines its fate, and in that they were correct. Had the Jews of that time not been divided into so many rival groups, had they used their good sense and respected one another rather than following the urges of their more fanatic leaders they could have avoided that tragedy and the entire future of Judaism and the world might have been different.
The one man who really understood that was Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai. Unlike the zealots, he was a realist who understood the facts on the ground and did not follow illusions. Ben Zakkai early on saw the folly of attempting to revolt against Rome and urged the rebels to cease the fighting which he believed would only lead to the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. To some his way may have seemed traitorous, for he preferred living under Roman rule to bringing about the destruction of Jerusalem.
This does not mean that he thought the Romans were right. On the contrary, he considered them to be "a low people" (Ketubot 66b), but he did not allow himself to be carried away by the enthusiasm of the rebels, rather he recognized the reality of the situation. Ben Zakkai followed the way of Jeremiah, who had also tried to warn the people to recognize reality. He too failed.
Ben Zakkai may have failed to prevent the tragedy, but he did not despair. Rather he led the way to the continuation of Judaism under the new circumstances. He strengthened the power of the Sages as the new leaders of the Jewish people. He taught that Judaism could continue even without the Temple. The story is told that Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai and Rabbi Joshua were walking by the ruins of the Temple. Rabbi Joshua said, "Woe to us that the place where the atonement for the sins of Israel was made has been destroyed!" but Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai replied, "Do you not know that we have a means of making atonement that is as good as this? And what is it? Gemilut hasadim - acts of loving-kindness - as it is said (Hosea 6:6), "For I desire hesed - loving-kindness - and not sacrifice" (Avot d'Rabbi Natan 4:21).
Interestingly enough this same Rabbi Joshua continued in the path of his teacher in teaching the people how to deal with the new realities. When large numbers of people began to take extreme measures in mourning for the Temple, he taught them that such extremism was impossible. "My sons, come and listen to me," he said. "Not to mourn is impossible because the disaster has occurred. To mourn overmuch is also impossible. The Sages have therefore ordained that a man may stucco his house, but he should leave a little bare. A man may prepare a full banquet, but he should leave out an item or two. A woman may put on all her ornaments, but leave off one or twoâ€¦" (Baba Batra 60b).
How fortunate for us all that sages such as these prevailed. They have taught us to find always the way of realism, to face the facts and find the ways to live under new conditions, to be moderate and not extreme or fanatic in our actions. They have taught us that the true strength of a people and a society lies in the way in which its members treat one another. To put away causeless hatred, to honor and respect one another, to avoid over-strictness in our interpretation of the laws of Judaism - all of these are as important today as they ever were and should be in our minds as we mourn the past sorrows in order to learn the lessons of the past in order to create a better future.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court (Beit Din) of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.