During Tisha b’Av services we lament the destruction of Jerusalem and its holy Temple by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. by reading the Book of Lamentations.
As an emotional composition, The Book of Lamentations is not that different from the Sumerian lament at the destruction c.2004 B.C.E. of the city of Ur and its temple: “For the gods have abandoned us, like migrating birds they have gone. Ur is destroyed, bitter is its lament. Bodies dissolve like fat in the sun. Our temple is destroyed. Smoke lies on our city like a shroud, blood flows like a river lamenting men and women. sadness abounds. Ur is no more.”
Then 2-3 generations later, both Ur and Jerusalem with their temples were rebuilt and everything was normal again.
But with the second destruction of Jerusalem and its holy Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E. the rabbis added a new aspect of critical self-evaluation to the feelings of lament.
Eicha, the Hebrew name of the book, means how. How did this destruction come about? How come it happened again? How come God made it, or let it happen? How should we respond to what happened?
Multiple answers to all these questions are found in various places in the Talmud and especially in Midrash Eicha Rabbah.
In previous posts I related some rabbinic insights relating how come Jerusalem was destroyed. A major cause of the second destruction was sinat heenam-unrestrained hatred and intolerance of those who differed in politics or religion.
Now I turn to another how. How do we react to our enemies’ destructive fury.
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 Rabbis 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,
They taught that Sennacherib, the Assyrian king who exiled the ten northern tribes, and Nebuzaradan, the Babylonian general who destroyed the First Temple, converted to Judaism in their later years.
Seeking to avoid the vendetta mind set that keeps hostilities alive for centuries, the sages even taught that some descendants of Haman converted to Judaism and that their descendants ended up teaching Torah in the orthodox town of Bnei Berak.
And they were not the only ones. According to the Talmud (Gitten 57b) “Descendants of Sisera (a Canaanite general) taught children in Jerusalem, and descendants of Sennacherib gave public lectures on Torah. Who were they? Shemaya and Avtalyon.” These two great sages were the predecessors of Hillel and Shammai.
Not only may our present enemies provide converts who will be supporters of Torah in the future, but spurning any potential converts now may provide us with future anti-Semites.
A midrash in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) teaches that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob each in turn refused to accept Timna the sister of Lotan as a convert. Because the patriarchs pushed away a potential convert, their descendants suffered greatly at the hands of her descendants; the Amalekites.
One midrash (Eicha Rabbah I, 5, 31-2) relates that the Western Wall was saved by an Arab.
“When Vespasian had subdued the city, he assigned the destruction of the four ramparts to four generals. The western gate was allotted to Pangar, the Arab. Now it had been decreed by Heaven that this should never be destroyed because the Shechinah (the feminine presence of God) dwelled in the west. The others demolished their sections but Pangar the Arab did not demolish his.
“Vespasian sent for him and asked, ‘Why did you not destroy your section?’ Pangar replied, “I acted so for the honor of the Roman Empire. If I had demolished the last wall, no one (in the future) would know what you overcame. Now people will look at it and say: See the might of Vespasian from what he overcame.
“Vespasian said, “Enough, you have spoken well, but since you disobeyed my orders you shall ascend to the roof and throw yourself down. If you live, you will live. If you die, you will die.” (Midrash Rabba, Lamentations 1:31)
Pangar, the Arab, ascended, threw himself down and died. He must have known what the consequences of disobeying his orders would be.
Some versions of this midrash conclude with a remark that Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai thought Pangar died because he was insincere, Otherwise God would have miraculously saved him. But many pious Jews were not saved by miracles at that time, and no one doubted their sincerity, so it is not surprising that another version does not have this statement.
It is always difficult to judge the intentions of another person, especially an outsider. All we can be sure of is that general Pangar the Arab paid with his life for disobeying his orders to demolish the Western Wall.
Also, an anonymous Roman officer saved Rabbi Gamaliel’s life when Gamaliel had been condemned to death, and this Roman officer died in the same way. (Talmud Ta’anith 29a) It seems reasonable that both of these righteous Gentiles lost their lives because of their righteous actions.
How could people who occupied themselves with Torah study, Mitsvot and Tsadakah engage freely in unrestricted hate? The Talmud records this amazing statement: “Rabbi Yohanan said: ‘Jerusalem was only destroyed, because they judged by Din Torah (rigorous/strict Law). Should they have judged by the brutal (Roman) laws? —(no) but they judged by strict law, and did not stretch the limits of the law Lifnim miShurat haDin. (Bava Mezia 30b).
Strict halakah and narrow minded zeal easily lead to free floating anger and hate, which, unfettered and unrestrained, lead to disaster. It is not surprising that Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai openly blames the failure to judge people with understanding, flexibility and loving tolerance as the crucial sin that led to the destruction of Jerusalem.
Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai himself openly suspended a Torah commandment due to changed circumstances. (Sotah 9:9) Thus he freed Jewish wives from the threat of the Sotah water ordeal.
Other Rabbis accomplished similar things by legal reinterpretation, as in the case of a rebellious son, rather than an explicit “end it” ruling.
Suffering a tragic loss is one of the greatest challenges to our sense of purpose, meaning and direction. The catastrophic defeat of one of 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 an Arab declared that the Messiah was born on the very day the second Temple was destroyed. (Midrash Eicha Rabbah I, 16, 51) The Rabbis preached again and again that out of darkness and despair, hope and trust could be reborn. As Shimon Peres always said, “Optimists and pessimists die the exact same death, but they live very different lives.”
Even the emotional Book of Lamentations says “I call to mind this, and so have hope, the kindness of the Lord has not ended, His mercies are not spent. (Lam 3:21-2)