Read this chilling description of the destruction of an ancient city by Roman troops:
“Then came new scenes of horror. As the fire spread and carried everything down, the soldiers did not wait to destroy the buildings little by little, but all in a heap. So the crashing grew louder, and many corpses fell with the stones into the midst. Others were seen still living, especially old men, women, and young children who had hidden in the inmost nooks of the houses, some of them wounded, some more or less burned, and uttering piteous cries. Still others, thrust out and falling from such a height with the stones, timbers, and fire, were torn asunder in all shapes of horror, crushed and mangled.”
At first glance this might appear to be a report of the assault on Jerusalem by Titus, but it is in fact Appian’s account of the Roman destruction of Carthage in the Third Punic War, a little over 200 years earlier. We Jews commemorate the burning of our Temple every year on Tisha B’Av. Why is there no similar commemoration of the destruction of Carthage?
A coworker of my wife suggested a possible answer.
No other country in the world has a national day of destruction like we do. (We’re not talking about memorial days for fallen soldiers, but a day commemorating the destruction of the entire country.) And why?
Because none of the other nations who’ve been destroyed are still around to have a day like this…
For many years, I found this answer to be of significant comfort. It indicates that despite all of our suffering, we’re guaranteed to persevere, and that we will never disappear. But upon further consideration, I’m not so convinced that this answer is satisfying. Does it somehow disturb the descendants or replacements of the Carthaginians (be they Berbers or Tunisians) that the original nation no longer exists? Antiquity is full of extinct states, and this seems no less natural than the extinction of a species of bird or tree. So why is it so important for us that we do not submit to the same historical processes that inevitably consume other nations?
To further clarify this point, let’s look at earlier, biblical history. Both King Saul and King David sinned — Saul did not precisely fulfill God’s command regarding Amalek, and David sinned with Bathsheba, in events that included bloodshed and adultery. Saul’s sin might seem to be much less serious, and yet his punishment was much more severe – he lost his kingship. David remained king. How is that fair?
But looking at the bigger picture, in the end, Saul lost his job. David remained king – but lost his children. Which is worse? Which would we choose?
What we need to understand in this story is that there is an essential difference between Saul and David. When David was chosen by God this was an eternal choice – unlike Saul. There was no possibility for David to lose his job, no risk of “divorce” from God. When David sinned, therefore, that was not one of the options on the table, and so he suffered the unbearable consequences that followed.
Would we perhaps choose the fate of Saul over David’s? Maybe, but we can’t really compare the two.
When we look at the history of the Jewish people, we need to make a similar distinction. When God chose Abraham, and made a covenant with him and his children, this was an eternal choice, not subject to annulment. When the Jews sinned in the desert, Moses summoned the covenant with the forefathers, and God repented from his plan to destroy the people.
So should we celebrate that we have a divine promise that we will never be destroyed? Not so fast. This is by no means a “get out of jail free” card. Because in addition to the covenant with Abraham, there was another covenant at Mount Sinai, where we agreed to follow the laws of the Torah, or face very serious consequences.
If we don’t fulfill our commitments in the covenant at Sinai, we can’t simply fall back on the promise to Abraham. This was the tragic mistake of the false prophets in the days of Jeremiah who called out “The Temple of the Lord! The Temple of the Lord! (7:4), believing that God would not execute such a terrible punishment upon them and His abode. This was what led the zealots in the time of the Romans to assume that they could kill their fellow Jews, and God would protect them from the mighty Roman army.
When the catastrophes finally fell upon them, they might have preferred the fate of Saul, to just be divorced from God. They might have even wished to suffer the fate of Carthage, just to know they would never suffer like this again. In fact, this is exactly what they asked the prophet Ezekiel, but this was his response (20:32):
You say, “We want to be like the nations, like the peoples of the world, who serve wood and stone.” But what you have in mind will never happen.
Is the fate of the Jewish people a blessing? While at times we may feel that it is, it certainly did not feel like that to the victims of Nebuchadnezzar, Titus or Hitler. But neither is it accurate to call it a curse. What is then our fate? It is a mission. That mission can contain either a blessing or a curse, it is for our collective nation to decide.
We can rely on God’s covenant with Abraham to give us hope in dark days, to know that God will never abandon His people. We will always have Tisha B’Av and we will never truly be like Carthage. But we also must remember our mission at Sinai, to be a holy people and a kingdom of priests, or our unique situation – to repeat Tisha B’Av over and over again throughout the generations – will continue. Let’s all commit to breaking that cycle.