Conquering the Temple Mount 521.
(photo credit: Bamahane/ Jerusalem Post archives)
Tisha Be’av, which we will commemorate tomorrow night and Sunday, is a time of
mourning and lamentation for the two great calamities resulting in the
destruction of the Temple, the desolation of Jerusalem and the exile of our
people, the first in 586 BCE by the Babylonians and the second in 70 CE by the
Although the book that gives the tone to the day is Lamentations, which
was written in response to the Babylonian destruction, these days our minds are
more likely to be focused on the war against the Romans, since the ruins of that
destruction are still visible to this day. The Western Wall, which was part of
the retaining wall of Herod’s reconstruction of the Second Temple, remains a
place of prayer and pilgrimage. Indeed, the period of exile and loss of Jewish
independence that began then was only brought to a close in the founding of the
State of Israel, 64 years ago.
The tragic events of those days remain
vivid in our minds and we still mourn them even though nearly 2,000 years have
passed. We can sit at the promenade in Jerusalem, as hundreds of us will
Saturday night, look at the Old City and imagine the scenes of death and
destruction that caused the stones to lie at the foot of the Wall and the
burning of the houses that we can still see when we visit archeological sites.
But in our mournful recollections, what we seldom think of is the fact that this
might have been averted. That is the true tragedy. Perhaps – no one can be
certain because no one can second-guess history – it did not have to
We are all aware of the way the sages tried to find a reason for
the destruction. They looked for the “sin” that the people may have committed,
that might have caused God to allow this to happen.
The most well-known
answer they gave was “baseless hatred.” But this is a case of after-the-fact
moralizing, which teaches a good lesson but does not really explain historical
events. The sages were aware of that as well, and recount that when Vespasian
came to destroy Jerusalem he offered that if the Jews would “send me one bow or
one arrow” as a sign of capitulation, he would leave, but they refused. When
Rabban Yohanan Ben-Zakkai heard of the offer, he said to the people, “My
children, why are you destroying this city? Why do you want to burn the Temple?
All he has asked of you is one bow or one arrow and he will leave you!” But they
would not listen. This led Ben-Zakkai to his famous escape from Jerusalem in a
coffin and his founding of the yeshiva in Yavne (Avot de Rabbi Natan 4. See also
Gittin 56b). According to this tale, at least, the destruction could have been
Of course throwing off the yoke of Roman rule was a worthy,
heroic, goal. What people would not want to be free? Yet the question of realism
and of weighing the consequences also begs to be asked. What if that enterprise
was doomed from the start? Would it not have been wiser to listen to Yohanan
Ben-Zakkai and avoid all that death and destruction, even if it meant continuing
to live under Roman rule? This seems to be the message of the sages. The defeat
of the Jews changed the course of human history. Prior to that time, Judaism and
its message had been popular throughout the Roman world and many proselytes and
semi-proselytes had given up paganism and looked to Jewish monotheism for their
religious and spiritual needs. After the defeat, that was no longer the case.
The time was ripe for religious revolution, and Christianity came to fill that
need while Judaism went into a 2,000 year exile in more ways than one.
is a lesson worth pondering.
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The writer, former president of the
International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book
Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).
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