Respond to balloon arson with 9 Av wisdom

Hamas plans to vastly expand its balloon arson attacks on Israeli crops. Before the IDF does something about it, during the weeks preceding 9Av, the Israel’s political and military strategy planners should study the Talmud: Gittin 55b. “Because of a chicken and a hen, Tur Malka was destroyed. Because of the door of a wagon, Betar was destroyed.” This passage opens the Gemara’s depiction of the events leading to the destruction of the Land of Israel.

“Because of a chicken and a hen, Tur Malka was destroyed.” (Gittin 57a) The custom in Tur Malka was to present chickens and hens to a bride and groom, symbolizing the guests’ hope for their fertility. Once, some Roman soldiers passed by a wedding in the area and seized the chicken and hen (insulting the wedding party, only to suffer the vengeful blows of the insulted participants. Consequently, a bloody war ensued and Tur Malka was destroyed.”

The destruction of Betar, continues the Gemara, began in a similar manner. “In Betar they would plant a cedar to commemorate the birth of a boy, and a pine upon the birth of a girl. The tree planted at birth would later be used for the construction of the youngster’s wedding canopy.

Once, the emperor’s daughter ordered that several cedars be cut down in order to fix her broken carriage (door), arousing the violent reaction from some of the inhabitants of Betar. A war thus ensued, and the city was destroyed.”

The cedar, the strongest of trees, caused the downfall of Betar. So Chazal teach us that at a time of political and military danger, a source of strength may become a source of failure. Over-reacting by the IDF to the balloon arson attacks on Israeli crops by large scale military attacks is exactly what Hamas wants.

What about Jerusalem? Most Jews today would say Jerusalem was lost because the Romans destroyed it. The Roman Empire and army was big and strong. No one else could defeat them during the first and second century. The strong usually defeat the weak. Usually, but not always.

The Maccabees fought a two decade long war and finally attained independence from the Syrian Empire. True, but the Roman Empire was more powerful than the Syrian Empire; that is why the Romans conquered them.

Even after that first Roman victory a second Jewish revolt against the Romans broke out two generations later. The Bar Kochba revolt was supported by Rabbi Akiba, who thought Bar Kochba might be the Messiah. After 3 ½ years of fierce fighting that revolt was also crushed and any possibility of the Romans allowing Jews to rebuild Jerusalem vanished.

Amazingly the Rabbis refused to blame the Romans. The Jewish belief that God guarantees the ultimate triumph of good over evil means that defeats could only be due to a temporary weakness in the forces of good. When the flaw was repaired (Teshuvah/Tikun) good would be able to overcome evil. Thus, instead of blaming others, and ignoring our own responsibility for what happened, the Rabbis focused on faults within the Jewish community.

They understood that the First Temple was destroyed because of three evils: idolatry, licentiousness and bloodshed. “But why was the Second Temple destroyed, seeing that during the time it stood people occupied themselves with Torah, Mitsvot and Tsadakah? Because during the time it stood unrestrained hatred prevailed. This is to teach you that unfettered hatred is deemed as grave as all the three sins of idolatry, licentiousness and bloodshed, put together.” (Yoma 9b)

For a few centuries, when people still knew and understood the political situation that led up to the two disastrous revolts, many of the sages, especially Yohanan ben Zakkai who lived in Jerusalem (and fled the city towards the end of the siege) referred more than once to the ridged, narrow minded zealotry that prevailed in that generation. For example in the case of Bar Kamtza, the Rabbis were willing to appease a Roman governor by transgressing the Temple ritual. Then a priest who was also a rabbi objected, and they gave in to him.

The Talmud (Gitten 56a) states: The Rabbis were inclined to offer it (on the Alter). Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulos said, “People will say that (we approved) blemished animals to be offered on the alter.” Then they proposed to kill Bar Kamtza so he could not go inform against them, but Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulos said, “Is a person who makes a blemish on a consecrated animal put to death?” So they insulted the Roman Governor by refusing to offer it on the Temple alter.

“Thus, Rabbi Yohanan (ben Zakkai) remarked, “Through the ‘humility’ (scrupulousness or ridged unwillingness to be flexible when conditions demand it) of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulos, our sanctuary was destroyed, our Temple burnt, and we ourselves exiled from our land.” (Gitten 56a)

In another place “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 political 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.

His nephew, Abba Sicara ben Battiah, one of the leaders of the Zealot party, was in charge of food supplies during the siege. When Yohanan ben Zakkai heard that all the food supplies had been burnt due to fighting between rival Jewish forces, the rabbi decided to escape from Jerusalem. (Midrash Eicha Rabbah I, 5:31)

I hope the Rabbinate, the IDF, and especially the government will learn from Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 450 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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