Obama Mourning 311 (R).
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Prophesying at the time of the return to Zion after the exile to
Babylonia, the prophet mentioned the four fasts that had been observed
there and said they would be abolished – and more than that, would
become holidays, times of celebration. We are now in the fourth month.
According to Jeremiah 52:6, on the ninth day of this month, Tamuz, there
was no food left in Jerusalem. The fast that we have in the fourth
month, however, is on the 17th, because that was the day the Romans
breached the walls of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE (Ta’anit 4:6).
It seems likely that after the first return to Zion, those four mourning
days were no longer observed. When the State of Israel came into being,
there were those in the religious Zionist world who said the time had
come to abolish these fasts again – if not Tisha Be’av, at least the
other three, which are observed only during the daytime. Observed or
not, there is little question that for those who see in the
establishment of the state an act of redemption, the feeling of mourning
that once reigned during the Three Weeks has diminished – and rightly
so. Nevertheless, there is some value in remembering the events
commemorated by these three weeks.
Aside from the fact that it is important to be aware of our history, the
commemoration of the two major acts of destruction – the first by the
Babylonians in 586 BCE and the second by the Romans in 70 CE – serves to
remind us that in both instances, these catastrophes could have been
avoided. They were not ordained, and they were not inevitable.
Our prayers use the phrase, “Because of our sins we were exiled from our
land.” “Our sins” can be explained in two different ways.
One is that we did not deserve to continue living in our land because we
violated the basic laws of the Torah – laws of morality and decency, as
well as of fidelity to the Lord. That is what the prophet Jeremiah
taught prior to the destruction. That is also what the Sages taught when
they said the Second Temple was destroyed because of such sins as
But Jeremiah also discerned another “sin,” and that was the mistaken
attempt to play international politics by siding with the Egyptians
against the Babylonians: “What, then, is the good of your going to Egypt
to drink the waters of the Nile?” (Jer. 2:23; see also Jer. 37:6) And
later, when the catastrophe was upon them, he said they should accept
the yoke of Babylon and not make things worse (Jer. 27:12). No one
Similarly Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai counseled the people not to rebel
against Rome, the mightiest power in the world at that time. “My
children,” he said to the zealots, “why do you destroy this city, and
why do you seek to burn the Temple? For what is it that he [the Emperor
Vespasian] asks of you? Verily he asks naught of you save one bow or one
arrow, and he will go off from you.” They, too, would not listen, and
vowed to go to war (Avot D’Rebbi Natan A 4). The result was
The inability to read the reality, to refrain from extreme actions and
come to terms with the situation in order to prevent death and
destruction, was the underlying cause of these tragedies. It is all very
well to be courageous, but it is also good to be prudent. As King
Solomon taught, “There is a time for every experience under heaven... a
time for war and a time for peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:1,8). One has to know
when the time is right for each course of action and discern the
Of course, it is impossible to second-guess history, but it seems
possible that had the leadership heeded Jeremiah and had the zealots
listened to Rabbi Yohanan, these catastrophes could have been averted –
and who knows what this would have meant for the history of Judaism and
the world? For that, we should indeed mourn.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly,
was the founding director of the Schechter Rabbinical School. His latest
book is Entering Torah.