I won’t lie. I am in search of comfort for our collective trauma. It’s true that living in Israel allows you the privilege of witnessing firsthand the tremendous outpouring of unity and support of every kind imaginable for our troops and fellow Jews displaced by the war. Besides material support many are praying and learning Torah for everyone’s safe return home, especially the hostages. An unprecedented sense of unity is also reverberating across Jewish communities worldwide. One cannot witness this without feeling “מי כעמך ישראל” “[God] who is like your nation Israel!” While this provides comfort, it doesn’t address the pain – especially the fact that atrocities of this scale seem eerily familiar – a dark side of our destiny.
A haunting story in the Talmud seems to be a close match to the reaction of “Mi K’amcha Yisrael” after tragedy had struck. It took place right after the destruction of the second Temple.
Rabban Yocḥanan ben Zakkai was riding on a donkey and leaving Jerusalem, and his students were walking after him to learn from him. He saw a certain young woman who was gathering barley from among the dung of the animals of Arabs. She was so poor that she subsisted on the undigested barley within the dung. When she saw him …she said to him: My teacher, sustain me! He did not recognize her, so he said to her: My daughter, who are you? She said to him: I am the daughter of Nakdimon ben Guryon. He said to her: My daughter, the money of your father’s household, where did it go” (Ketuvot 66B)?
The commentary to the Talmud, the Maharsha, helps fill in some critical gaps. This woman was the daughter of one of the wealthiest Jews in Jerusalem. Most of her father’s wealth was invested in grain during the siege of Jerusalem. It was burnt by the zealots (t Beryonim).** Rabban Yocḥanan ben Zakkai was asking about the remainder of her father’s wealth. Her answer was interpreted two ways in the Talmud. Either that her father gave too little charity based on his wealth or that his motivation in giving charity was not always as pure as it should have been.
How fortunate are you, the Jewish People
How did Rabban Yocḥanan ben Zakkai react to this tragic scene? He cried. However in his tears he declared אַשְׁרֵיכֶם יִשְׂרָאֵל How fortunate are you, the Jewish People.
You could say that he cried because he was reminded of the tragic human toll of the Temple’s destruction. That may be true, but I believe he also cried from joy. Her answer reflected her steadfast faith in God’s ultimate justice despite her dramatic reversal of fortunes.*** Rabban Yocḥanan ben Zakkai was overtaken with emotion by the remarkable faith of the Jewish People. We understand that it’s all from God – our ability to achieve unparalleled success and sustain tragic loss. As Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai declared:
בִּזְמַן שֶׁעוֹשִׂין רְצוֹנוֹ שֶׁל מָקוֹם אֵין כ
אוּמָּה וְלָשׁוֹן שׁוֹלֶטֶת בָּהֶם וּבִזְמַן שֶׁאֵין עוֹשִׂין רְצוֹנוֹ שֶׁל מָקוֹם,מוֹסְרָן בְּיַד אוּמָּה שְׁפָלָה וְלֹא בְּיַד אוּמָּה שְׁפָלָה אֶלָּא בְּיַד בְּהֶמְתָּן שֶׁל אוּמָּה שְׁפָלָה
When the Jewish People perform the will of God, no nation or race can rule over them; and when the Jewish People do not perform the will of God, He delivers them into the hand of a lowly nation. Not only are they delivered into the hand of a lowly nation, but even into the hand of the animals of a lowly nation” (Ibid).
The events of October 7th happened for a reason. Although we don’t know the reason, we accept God’s ultimate justice just like the woman who picked grains from the dung. This is abundantly clear from the outpouring of Jewish unity worldwide. We are seeing everything from Israeli soldiers asking for Tzitzit and Teffilin to woke American Jews mugged by reality and coming closer to their heritage.
For a people to accept God’s justice in the face of unspeakable horror gives me solace “How fortunate are you, the Jewish People?!”