The true tragedy of Tisha Be'av

Western Wall was part of retaining wall of Herod’s reconstruction of 2nd Temple, remains a place of prayer, pilgrimage.

Conquering the Temple Mount 521 (photo credit: Bamahane/ Jerusalem Post archives)
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 Romans.
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 happen.
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 avoided.
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.
It is a lesson worth pondering.
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).