Tisha B’Av is not primarily about mourning, although there should always be a time to mourn. Nor is Tisha B’Av primarily about mourning the end of the Temple and its offerings; because our prophets and our rabbis had already figured out how to live Jewishly without the Temple or its offerings. Rather, it’s about the terrible consequences that arise from the failure of Jewish political and religious leaders to reprove narrow minded, self righteous, religious and political rigidity among their own followers.
Our generation 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 like the ultra-Orthodox, Reform and Conservative Jews, 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 as well as the local Arab population.
We, as individuals and as a community have much to learn from Midrash Eikha Rabba and other Talmudic 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, unlike many other rabbis, doesn’t mention any one specific action that was so reprehensible that it doomed Jerusalem. He is focusing not on the many sins of the public and its leaders, which are always there in greater or lesser degrees, but to the general failure of the leadership to engage in self criticism; and reprove a corrupt religious and political establishment.
Eikhah-how could people who occupied themselves with Torah study, Mitsvot and Tsadakah not rebuke their own overly strict rabbinic colleagues and extremist yeshivah students?
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 go Lifnim miShurat haDin (beyond the line/letter of the law). (Bava Mezia 30b).
Strict halakhah 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 (sotah) a Torah commandment, suspended 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 (agunot) who cannot get remarried because their husbands have disappeared, or are refusing to give them a get/divorce.
Or it might have been a crime like the arson attack by Jewish extremists on a home in the Palestinian village of Duma in July 2015, which killed a couple and their 18-month-old child, or the activities of the Yeshivah inspired hilltop youth, or the price tag vandals, that are rarely denounced by Haraidi or settler rabbis.
Or it may have been something like the decision a few years ago, 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 of the Rabbis in Israel in our generation have failed to publicly reprove these zealots for violating the Torah’s commandments to both love neighbors and converts; and to not oppress them in any way.
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 disgraceful actions?
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, then Orpha’s descendent Goliath, would have been fighting on the Jewish side; not on the other side.
Our sages decreed a special blessing to be said when we see a very large population of Jews, who because of their great numbers must include more sects of Jews than we ourselves would normally associate with, as follows: “Blessed is the Sage of Esoterica, for the opinion of each (Jew) is different from the other, just as the face of each (Jew) is different from the other.” (Berakhot 58a)
The problem was not that they differed with each other. The problem was that some of them hated each other with a hatred that was unrestrained by their Yeshivah teachers and unfettered by the political leaders who were close to them. Although it was to late to save Jerusalem and its Holy Temple, our sages learned a very important lesson from that bitter experience.
It wasn’t Babylonian or Roman power that banished God from the world, but the inability of the Jewish people to find common cause, and to temper and restrain their internecine conflicts. We couldn’t get along with different kinds of Jews, so God departed from Jerusalem. Jews may be an eternal people, but never underestimate our self-destructive capacities.
The Kotel is not a part of the Temple; it is a part of the retaining wall holding up the west side of the Temple Mount. A retaining wall, holding sanctity above the shifting ground of politics and religious zealotry; and Sinat Khinam, our inability to embrace one another, the very reason we lost the city twice before, now burns again.
This lesson needs to be relearned by all Jewish political and religious leaders today, so that Jerusalem will not again be destroyed. Only the universal Jewish recognition that the political and religious extremism of “Sinat Khinam”, and not the Romans, destroyed Jerusalem; and only universal Jewish leadership’s continual condemnation of “Sinat Khinam” can save us today.
As the government report on the murder of Prime Minister Rabin concluded; Avtalyon, (a Roman Greek convert to Judaism) taught (Avot 1:11): “(Yeshivah) scholars, be careful with your words, lest you deserve a deserved exile to a place of evil (extreme) waters; and your disciples who come after you will drink, and die, and the Name of God will be desecrated.”