A truth about human nature we often forget

This year on Tisha Be’av, shattered faith in our leaders and distrust within society have risen to shocking levels.

A Jewish worshipper prays next to the Western Wall on Tisha B'Av, a day of fasting and lament, in Jerusalem's Old City (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
A Jewish worshipper prays next to the Western Wall on Tisha B'Av, a day of fasting and lament, in Jerusalem's Old City
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
Of the many stories of despair that emerged from the destruction of the Second Temple, there was one that has always amazed me. As history recalls, fanatics burned the grain silos of the wealthy landowners of Jerusalem, thus depriving the locals of food and making it that much easier for the Romans to defeat the local population.
When first reading that story, I was shocked at those very words.
According to the history books, Jerusalem was a city that had abundant resources stored up in those silos. The population could have survived on it for years. The Romans, on the other hand, were suffering from a climate to which they were not acclimated and that they found unbearable.
The city and our Temple could have prevailed were it not for the actions of this small group of radicals who chose to burn the very thing that would have kept them alive. The obvious question arises: How could we do this to ourselves? What would compel one Jew to burn the food of another and, as a result, not only starve others but cause himself direct harm?
As difficult as it is sometimes to comprehend, this story reveals a truth about human nature that we often want to forget. Within us exists the potential for destruction that occasionally we are unable to control, despite that being wholly irrational. Sometimes we act as individuals and communities with so much passion that we forget what makes sense, and we act out of haste and anger rather than thought and patience.
Recognizing this unfortunate characteristic reveals a truth that has similarly destroyed us at other points in our history. Certainly in ancient times we were divided as a people at times, and acted violently against our brothers and sisters. But in more modern times, examples also exist of divisions within the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Rather than combine forces, unity remained elusive, and the tragic result is all too well known. In pre-state Palestine, the existence of multiple armed groups hurt our own efforts against our enemies.
Sadly, as much as we have learned from our history, we would be ignorant to think that divisions don’t present a similar danger today.
The Rambam (Maimonides) teaches that Tisha Be’av is not solely a day when we are asked to reflect on the past, but rather that it should be viewed as a call to action for modern times. We must work to ensure that we not repeat the mistakes of the past.
If we look at the current political and social divides which plague Israel today (and similar divides in the Diaspora) one can identify those very trends which have plagued us over the generations.

THERE IS a vocal public today which believes the ruling political establishment dealing with the current pandemic is motivated by political concerns, and that those concerns are what motivates their decision-making process, as if a virus could distinguish between Right and Left or religious and secular.
The other side looks at those demonstrating against the government and believes the protesters are intent on producing anarchy and have no respect for the democratic ideals that elect said government.
On the one hand we witness protesters storming police barricades in scenes reminiscent of the siege of the Bastille. And on the other hand, defenders of the government rail against the judicial establishment as if it is controlled by some totalitarian dictator rather than the first sovereign Jewish government in thousands of years.
This year’s Tisha Be’av demands that we take notice in ways perhaps unlike ever before. Certainly we have known difficult times in our past. We have faced economic hardship and wars, famines and pandemics.
But we are forced to acknowledge that the types of shattered faith in our leaders and the distrust within our society have risen to levels that must shock us as a people. This sense of distrust is not simply a psychological idea. When we fail to respect each other and when the citizens’ trust in their leaders collapse, the ability to function as a people becomes endangered.
This is even more tragic in times of national and international crisis, when the very ability of a society to function and overcome challenge hinges on a need to respect authority. All public crises are overcome when that sense of trust is restored. This is so much more critical when it comes to a healthcare crisis.
When one person chooses to dismiss the public guidelines, he or she has the very real potential to infect others and set back any communal progress to defeat the disease.
Therein is the historic message of Tisha Be’av this year. History has given us the chance – and more so the responsibility – to create a society in which we ignore those inclinations to divide or be self-destructive. It’s certainly not an easy challenge, but the events of the past few months made it even more evident what can happen if we are not up to the task.
If we accept what the Rambam is saying, if we take pause and reflect on the dangers inherent in division – in centuries past and in present days – then we can effectively ensure that this day can be transformed from one of sadness and pain into one that will be marked as a holiday; a day when divisiveness is replaced by unity, and agony replaced by joy.
The writer is the chief rabbi of the city of Shoham, and the founder and chairman of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization in Israel.