Tisha Be'av: a social tragedy from then to now

Every generation has its own barns, whose stock is the source of its national resilience. We have a supreme obligation to protect them against those who would set them afire to promote their ideology

An ultra-Orthodox jew prays at the Westen Wall July 17, 2002 on Tisha B'Av (photo credit: LASZLO BALOGH/REUTERS)
An ultra-Orthodox jew prays at the Westen Wall July 17, 2002 on Tisha B'Av
(photo credit: LASZLO BALOGH/REUTERS)
Today, Tisha Be’av, the ninth day of the month of Av, we commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, a key landmark in the sequence of events that led to the Jews’ exile from their land.
Why was the Temple destroyed?
From a national perspective, it was the result of poor geopolitical judgment, which spurred a hopeless revolt against the mighty empire that ruled the country. From a religious perspective, it is perceived as the consequence of unseemly religious behavior, which Jeremiah and others warned against, and which provoked God’s anger. In the words of the festival liturgy, “On account of our sins we were exiled from our land.”
But how fascinating it is that the destruction is branded in our collective memory not only as the result of a political blunder or as a punishment from above, but even more so as the product of a social tragedy – internal dissension. The legends about the destruction – which, even if not entirely accurate historically, have shaped our mindset – emphasize the enemy from within.
Thus, when Vespasian clamped a siege on Jerusalem, a bitter disagreement erupted between the faction known as the Zealots (biryonim in Hebrew), who were eager to fight the Romans, and the sages, who wanted to find a peaceful solution.
At the time, Jerusalem had the wherewithal to withstand a protracted siege; its barns were overflowing with enough provisions to feed the population for no less than 21 years. The biryonim, pushing for a swift decision, set fire to the barns and brought starvation on the city. The message is clear: yes, it was the Romans who razed and burned the city, but they were able to do so only because of the war among the Jews.
TRANSLATED INTO today’s terms, Tisha Be’av can and must serve not only as a religious and national memorial day but also as a day on which a wake-up call is sent to Israeli society, cautioning it as to the immense danger that seems to be inherent to our genome. Every generation has its own barns, whose stock is the source of its national resilience. We have a supreme obligation to protect them against those who would set them afire to promote their own ideology or interests.
In Israel today, wracked by a fierce debate about identities, the rule of law is the most important storehouse of our sovereign life. We can live together only if there is consensus on the rules for resolving disagreements. Those who would undermine the rule of law are the biryonim of our day and age.
This does not mean that we should stifle the disagreements on serious issues. On the contrary, our tradition encourages debate and sees it as totally legitimate. As the Talmudic dictum insists, “Both these and those are the words of the living God.” We should listen to the renditions of the different visions of the best future for our country. The chronic bickering among Israel’s different “tribes,” which fuels Israel’s identity politics, is actually a treasure that can be used to our advantage. Whereas the United States (at least in the past) held to the motto “United We Stand,” the Jewish tradition might be paraphrased as “Divided We Stand.”
But the blessing of ideological diversity can be realized only if there is broad agreement about how to conduct our debates. In a democratic society, the law and the institutions charged with interpreting it and putting it into practice are the umpires who ensure that we are following the rules. Those who seek to chip away at their authority and independence and at their legitimacy are undermining our ability to be united, even while disagreeing. Someone who circulates false theories about the police, the State Attorney’s Office, the attorney-general and the courts will bear the historical responsibility for burning down the barn. Of course, all share the duty of waging the disagreements fairly. The law enforcement agencies, too, must make unbiased and cautious use of their authority and powers. They, too, must protect the grain in our barns.
Some believe that a people’s mythology determines its destiny. That is, if internal debate is a fundamental element of our national life, it will continue to be so in the future as well. This seems to be what the sages had in mind when they declared that “the deeds of the parents are a sign for the children.”
But is the catastrophic outcome we commemorate on Tisha Be’av truly our predetermined fate? We often read Isaiah’s verse “Those who ravaged and ruined you shall come from within” as a prophecy about our tendency to self-destruction. But the hope is that the original intention of the verse will be realized, namely, that the destructive elements – those who would set the barn on fire – will disappear from our public life.

The writer is a law professor at Bar-Ilan University and a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.