Av 9: Learning From Our Loss – OpEd


The First Temple was destroyed either on the 10th of Av (Jeremiah 52:12) or the 7th (2 Kings 25:8). The Second Temple, according to the first century Jewish historian Josephus and Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai (who was there) was destroyed on the 10th. 

Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai said (Talmud, Ta’anit 29a): “Had I been around during that generation, I would have set [the fast] for the 10th.” The rabbis (however believe) that the beginning of an ordeal is its essence.” So the fast is on the 9th of Av when the fire started, and not on the 10th when the building was totally destroyed). 

But the exact date is not important. What is really important is what we learn from Jerusalem’s destruction. 

Although the Civil War was the most traumatic event in U. S. history, Americans did not establish a special day to mourn for the more than 600,000 Americans (1/3 military and 2/3 civilian) who died in that war. We do not annually revisit that tragic event, or the failure of American democracy to end the crime of slavery without a civil war. We are a positive people and we do not like to dwell on past failures, even if doing so might help us avoid future failures. This is one of the reasons so many active and involved American Jews avoid observing Tisha b’Av.

Most people and governments like to speak about their victories and accomplishments. Few speak as frequently about their defeats and failures, as Jews do. Hanukkah celebrates a major victory over the Syrian Greek Empire. Tisha b’Av mourns over two major defeats; first by the Babylonian Empire in 587 BCE and then again by the Roman Empire in 70 CE. Why, year after year,  do Jews remind themselves about military defeats? 

For the same reasons Jews observe the annual date of a loved one’s death. We mourn not the fact of death, but the loss of a loved one’s life. Thus, on Tisha b’Av, Jews mourn the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and its Sanctuary.  They once served as a major source of  communal unity and spiritual holiness for Jews; as the annual pilgrimage to Makka does for Muslims to this very day. Tens of thousands of Jews from throughout the land of Israel, and from all the surrounding lands of the Roman and Parthian Empires, came to Jerusalem and its Sanctuary, especially during the week long pilgrimage festivals of Pesach and Sukkot. That’s all gone now.

But that is only part of the equation. Other nations and religious groups have lost capital cities and holy sanctuaries. The sanctuaries and cities of Babylon, Nineveh, and Thebes are nothing but ruins. No one today still mourns their demise. Why do Jews, after 1953 years, still mourn the loss of our Sanctuary? Because we are still here, and the ancient Babylonians, Assyrians and Egyptians are long gone. Even without our homeland and its Temple, we have not only survived; we have thrived. 

Other nations and religions have achieved ascendancy over us time and again, yet we have never given up our beliefs or our loyalty to the covenant our ancestors made with the God of Israel. As individuals, Jews know that death cannot destroy love; and as a historically aware community we know that defeat and oppression cannot destroy faith unless people just give up. Jews almost boast about how much they have suffered, in order to show how dedicated and devoted the Jewish people have been. 

But Jews are not the only people to be persecuted and massacred. In the twentieth century Armenians, Cambodians, Gypsies and Tutsis have also been victims of genocidal attacks. Nor is Judaism the only religion that after many centuries still annually mourns a tragic loss. Shi’a Muslims have been mourning the slaughter of Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Muhhamad, his supporters and members of his family by a rival Arab faction for more than thirteen centuries. 

This martyrdom took place near Karbalah in Iraq on October 10. 680. Shi’a Muslims consider this a day of mourning and sorrow; observing it by refraining from music, listening to sorrowful poetic recitations, wearing mourning attire, and refraining from joyous events like weddings that would distract them from the sorrowful remembrance of that day. 
These rituals that Shi’a Muslims observe on the tenth of Muharram are similar to the rituals Jews observe on the ninth of Av. Each people, religious community, culture and nation is unique in its own way, yet each also has something in its own experience that is similar to something in another community’s experience. Remembering the varied aspects of our uniqueness should help us find something in common with the various uniquenesses of all others.

In the immediate aftermath of an unanticipated personal or national tragic loss, people feel devastated and abandoned, even if  their horrible pain and anguish are at first lessened by shock and disbelief. We feel betrayed. Our former sense of safety and security has been demolished. We feel anger, even rage, and often scapegoat others and/or we reproach ourselves for not foreseeing the looming chasm and avoiding it. Even after time passes we still fear that we will never again be able to rebuild our lives and restore the feelings of confidence, trust, hope and faith that we took for granted prior to the disaster. If the tragedy is not just a personal/family one, but community wide or national, like a major earthquake or a terrible civil war, it is difficult to receive or feel the comfort of others who are themselves suffering as much, if not more, than we are.

Over time as our feelings subside into dull aches, disturbing thoughts arise in our minds: Why me/us? What did I/we do to deserve this? Why weren’t we warned? Can we live with our despair? Why didn’t other people understand our plight and prevent this? Why not just curse God and die? A historic national calamity arouses profound existential feelings and questions. These questions and the answers to these questions usually grow more important in following generations. 

For example, most Holocaust survivors refused to talk or think about their experiences until many years later. because it was too painful, and as survivors they need all their energy for continued living. So too, after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, most Jews just read Eicha and felt sad. But the answers that subsequent generations found to their questions can help us arrive at insights and  perspectives that provide wisdom for our generation.

Twenty six centuries ago the Babylonian Empire put down a Jewish revolt and destroyed Jerusalem and its Holy Temple. The Jewish people’s feelings of despair, destruction, defeat, and exile were recorded in Eicha; a Book of Lamentations, which was later included in the Bible used by both Jews and Christians. The Babylonian exile did not last long. Within 70 years the Babylonian Empire had been overthrown by the Persians and destroyed. 

The Persian king Cyrus, issued a decree permitting those Jews living in Babylon to return to the land of Israel and rebuild the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem.  Six and one half centuries later, another Jewish revolt, this time against the Roman Empire, resulted in another destruction of Jerusalem and the second temple in the year 70 CE. There was no need to write a new book of Lamentations. Our ancestors began to reread Eicha each year on the anniversary of the destruction, the 9th of Av, as they mourned what they had lost. But as the generations passed, the Rabbis began reading more and more lessons into the ancient text of Eicha. 

This process is called Midrash. Most Midrash is simply creative glossing of Biblical texts. Midrash Aggadah are legends, fables and stories that offer witness to spiritual lessons. Over four or five centuries a collection of these lessons and insights was compiled, from the Talmud and various other sources, called Midrash Eicha. These midrashim were studied over and over in past centuries and new insights were added by Kabbalists and Hassidic Rabbis. 

Our generation surely knows the religious and psychological challenge of comprehending the meaning of the tragedy of the Holocaust. Our generation also lives at a time when Jews have once again returned to the land of Israel and revived an independent state. A Jewish government in Israel is once again responsible for making decisions about how diverse groups of Israelis such as the ultra-Orthodox, Reform and Conservative Jews, the non-religious Jews as well as Muslims and Christians Arabs should live together in a tolerant and peaceful society. In addition, Jewish leaders, for the first time in more than 19 centuries, have to decide how much to risk for war or for peace, and how to relate to Israel’s Arab neighbors. 

We, as individuals and as a community have much to learn from Midrash Eicha and other texts that provide us with the wisdom of our sages. The Talmud (Shabbat 119b) relates that Rabbi Hanina said, “Jerusalem was destroyed only because its inhabitants did not reprove one another. Israel in that generation kept their faces looking down to the ground and did not reprove one another.” Rabbi Hanina doesn’t mention any one specific action that was so reprehensible that it doomed the city. I think it may have been something like the recent decision of some ultra-Orthodox Rabbis to  declare null and void the conversions of  thousands of Jews, by proclaiming the radical innovation of ‘retroactive annulment’ of thousand of orthodox conversions that took place in Israel in previous years. 

The sad fact is that most other Rabbis in Israel failed to publicly reprove these zealots for violating the Torah’s commandments to both love converts and not in any way oppress them. Why would any of the tens of  thousands of Russian non-Jews who, like Ruth. moved to Israel with their Jewish spouses, want to identify with a people whose religious leaders passively abide such a disgraceful action? Who can tell what the consequences of this repulsive act will be in determining the loyalty of future generations of Israelis? 

A midrash (Me’am Lo’ez : Ruth 1:14) relates that when Naomi discouraged her daughter-in-law Orpha from returning with Naomi to Judah, Orpha stayed in Moab, remarried, and had children. Among her descendants was the great warrior Goliath, who had to be killed by David, the descendant of Ruth the famous convert who did go with Naomi. If Naomi hadn’t discouraged Orpha, her descendent Goliath would have been fighting on the Jewish side; not on the other side. 

Suffering a tragic loss is one of the greatest challenges to our sense of purpose, meaning and direction. The catastrophic defeat of one or more of our values or ideals is an ultimate test of our character. Our generation knows that a democratic election in Germany put the Nazis in power, and a democratic election in Gaza put Hamas in power. Shall we abandon our trust in democracy and free speech? 

Our generation knows that advanced technology and genetic engineering often has toxic side effects. Shall we give up our optimistic faith in scientific progress and humanity’s ability to solve the problems of poverty and illness? A Midrash relates that the Messiah was born on Av 9, the same day that we remind ourselves that the first and second Temples were destroyed. Will our generation be able to generate a Messianic Age out of the ashes of Auschwitz and Hiroshima?  

God help us if we don’t. Or perhaps God will damn us if we don’t, for this is one of  the lessons of Tisha B’Av.
 Our sages knew it is natural and easy to blame our suffering on those who have defeated us and hope someday in the future to get revenge. The sages wanted Jews to live in peace with the non-Jews around them, so in later generations they portrayed some of the enemy’s top generals in positive terms, Pangar, an Arab general, is reported to have saved the western wall from destruction, and an anonymous Roman officer (Talmud Ta’anith 29a) is reported to have saved Rabbi Gamaliel’s life when Gamaliel had been condemned to death. 

Both of these righteous Gentiles lost their lives because of their actions. The sages also taught that Sannacherib the Assyrian king who exiled the ten northern tribes and Nebusaraddan the Babylonian general who destroyed the First Temple, converted to Judaism in their later years. In addition, seeking to avoid the vendetta mindset that keeps hostilities alive for centuries the sages even taught that some descendants of Haman  converted to Judaism and their descendants ended up teaching Torah in the orthodox town of Bene Berak. 

Judaism is unique among the world’s religions in the emphasis it places on historical memory and the number of holy days it devotes to historical events. Modern Jews have no problem celebrating a historical victory like Hanukkah, or a historic liberation like Pesach. But many Jews today prefer not to remember past defeats, like the two destructions of Jerusalem commemorated on Tisha b’Av. Ironically, the rebirth of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel makes it more important than ever for our generation and its leaders to understand the lessons our Rabbis learned from these two national catastrophes. 

The Talmud (Gitten 56a) reports: The destruction of Jerusalem came through a Kamtza and a Bar Kamtza in this way. A certain man had a friend Kamtza and an enemy Bar Kamtza. Once he made a banquet  and said to his servant, go and bring Kamtza. The man went and brought Bar Kamtza. When the host found Bar Kamtza there he said, “You gossip about me, what are you doing here? Get out.” Bar Kamtza replied, “Since I am here, let me stay and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.” The host refused. “Then let me pay you for half the cost of  the banquet.”  “No!” “Then let me pay for the whole banquet.” The host refused and took Bar Kamtza by the arm and pulled him outside. 

Bar Kamtza said to himself, “Since the Rabbis were sitting there and did not stop him, this shows that they agreed with him. I will go and inform the (Roman) Government.” He went and told the Governor that the Jews were disloyal. The Governor asked how he could test them. He replied, “Send them an offering (to the Temple) and see if they offer it. So he sent with him a fine (unblemished) calf. On the way, Bar Kamtza made a small blemish on the calf’s upper lip, in a place where we (Jews) count it as a blemish but they do not.

The Rabbis were inclined to offer it (on the altar). Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulos said to them, “People will say that (we approved) blemished animals to be offered on the altar.” Then they proposed to kill Bar Kamtza so he could not go inform against them, but Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulos said to them, “Is a person who makes a blemish on a consecrated animal to be put to death?” Rabbi Yohanan (ben Zakkai) thereupon remarked, “Through the ‘humility'(scrupulous piety) of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulos; our sanctuary was destroyed, our Temple burnt, and we ourselves exiled from our land.”

According to the Talmud’s account, what or who was responsible for the catastrophe? Was it just bad luck; the servant’s unintentional mistake in bringing the wrong man? Was it the host’s stubborn rigidity or unrelenting hostility to someone who gossiped about him?  Why didn’t the rabbis who were there intervene? Shaming someone in public is considered akin to murder in rabbinic thought. Perhaps, like some ultra-orthodox Rabbis today, they didn’t rebuke the host’s refusal to have anything to do with someone he looked down upon, because they were busy checking if  the food was kosher enough? Perhaps the Rabbis thought there is no reason to compromise with transgressors. 

Bar Kamtza is the pivotal character in this tragedy. His intention was to humiliate the Rabbis, as he was humiliated, by slandering them to the governor. But a charge of disloyalty is a dangerous charge since the governor will demand proof. Did it occur to Bar Kamtzah that the priests would refuse to offer the calf? The Rabbis are willing to compromise the ritual purity of the offering and desecrate the altar to avoid insulting the government, but Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulos objects. Is he a man of principle, a dangerous fanatic, or a fool? The Rabbis propose killing Bar Kamtzah to shut him up, but Zechariah ben Avkulos objects. Does he lack the guts to do whatever is needed to prevent a war which will kill tens of thousands? 

Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai says Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulos’  ‘humility’ (a lack of willingness to act decisively to transgress the Torah in order to save it) doomed the Temple. Does ‘humility’ prevent Orthodox Rabbis today from solving the problems of thousands of Orthodox women whose husbands will not give them a divorce? Do they lack the guts to prohibit their followers from smoking and overeating while they keep adding stricter and stricter rules for food and female dress? 

This ‘Rabbi’ is known only from his role in this catastrophe. He is called Rabbi Zechariah ben Eucolus in an account in Eicha Rabba where it is said that he was present at the party and could have prevented Bar Kamtzah’s humiliation but did not intervene. Rabbi Yose says that Zechariah ben Eucolus’ meekness burnt down the Temple. But Josephus, the Jewish historian, tells us that Zechariah ben Amphicalleus was a leader of a group of extremist priests who half way through the revolt overthrew the more moderate rebellious priests. 

Perhaps Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, who lived in Jerusalem during the rebellion, used ‘humility” ironically to indicate a legalistic, narrow minded extremism dressed up as modesty. 

Perhaps this is why the Talmud says that while the first Temple was destroyed because of three evils: idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed; the Second Temple was destroyed at a time when people occupied themselves with Torah, with Mitsvot, and with giving charity. Yet unfettered hatred prevailed. This should teach us that unrestrained hatred is deemed as evil as all the three sins of idolatry, immorality and bloodshed together. (Yoma 9b) 

How could people who occupied themselves with Torah study, Mitsvot and Tsadakah engage freely in hate?  The Talmud records this amazing statement, “Rabbi Yohanan said: ‘Jerusalem was only destroyed, because they judged by rigorous/strict Law. Should they have judged by the brutal (Roman) laws?–(no,) but they judged by strict law, and did not go beyond the line of the law. (Bava Mezia 30b). 

Strict law and narrow minded zeal easily lead to anger and hate, which unfettered and unrestrained lead to disaster. It is not surprising that Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai openly criticizes the failure to judge people with understanding, flexibility and loving tolerance. He was the only Rabbi in the Talmud to openly declare a Torah commandment nullified due to changed circumstances. 

All the rest of the Rabbis accomplished the same thing by legal reinterpretation rather than an open ruling. The Jewish people, especially in Israel today, need another Yohanan ben Zakkai to liberate the thousands of women who cannot get remarried because their husbands have disappeared or are refusing to give them a divorce.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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