Timeless Biblical Truths Continue to Challenge Us Today
Tisha B’Av is the saddest day of the Jewish Calendar. Understanding its origins holds the key to understanding anti-Semitism.
Always observed in the summer, (this year July 27), Tisha B’Av marks the date—nearly 2600 years ago in 586 BCE—on which the mighty Babylonian army destroyed our first Commonwealth, murdered millions of our People, exiled the remnant survivors to Babylon, and razed our First Temple to the ground. This date has profound modern-day geopolitical implications—had this not occurred, we would have been the overwhelming majority of the Holy Land’s inhabitants and be considered indigenous natives, even according to the UN.
It was on this exact date 491 years later—in 70 CE—that the Roman armies, led first by Vespasian and later by Titus, conquered Jerusalem with even more devastation than the brutal Babylonian massacre. Whereas the Babylonian conquest lasted only seventy years, we are still suffering today from the impact of the Roman occupation, 1953 years later!
The only independent Jewish kingdom to be established subsequent to the Roman invasion was led by Shimon bar Kochba whom many, including the esteemed Rabbi Akiva, deemed to be the Moshiach himself. Tragically this sovereignty that began in 132 CE was brought to a devastating end just three years later through a vengeful and massive Roman attack that took place on Tisha B’Av.
According to many historians, the Holocaust was actually the long, drawn-out conclusion of the First World War. World War One was set in motion when Germany declared war on Russia on the 9th of Av, Tisha B’Av in 1914!
Other events on Tisha B’Av include the Roman plowing over our Second Temple, reducing it to the rubble that still remains to this day. The edict of expulsion of the Jews from England was signed on Tisha B’Av in the year 1290 CE. The Golden Era of the Jews of Spain came to a tragic and abrupt end when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella signed the decree of expulsion on March 13, 1942, allowing the Jews a mere four months to leave or be killed. The date on which the edict took effect was Tisha B’Av of that same year.
What could possibly have caused all these catastrophes? In a heart-stopping statement, the Talmud reveals to us the stunning turn of events that led to this date being scheduled for notoriety in history. Locked within this kernel of Talmudic wisdom, lies the key to understanding the cause of anti-Semitism.
It all began exactly 3336 years ago on Tisha B’Av in the year 1313 BCE. When our ancestors were at the threshold of the Promised Land, they sent spies to scout out the conquest. Ten of the twelve spies reported that the Holy Land was too difficult to conquer and advised their leaders to abort the mission. Mutiny resulted, and G-d’s wrath was aroused. It was decreed that the Nation should wander in the desert for forty years until their children were ready to proceed into Israel.
But the Talmud, in Taanis 29b, makes a chilling statement: The verse states that “the entire assembly raised their voices and cried all that night (Bamidbar 14:1).” Quoting Rabbi Yochanan, Rabbah stated, “That night was the night of Tisha B’Av—The Holy One Blessed Be He declared ‘Since you cried for no reason on this day, I will give you legitimate reasons to cry on this day for generations to come!’”
This Talmudic statement seems nothing less than bizarre. What kind of parent would say such words to their offspring? Could it possibly be that as a result of their misplaced tears on that night, our nation would be subject to the unspeakable persecutions of Tisha B’Av?! Are the appalling anti-Semitic events of this notorious date purely the punishment for one night of crocodile tears?
If we could crack the code of this perplexing Talmudic statement, we would be able to understand the very cause of anti-Semitism.
A fundamental principle in Jewish mysticism is the conviction that since G-d is “the essence of kindness whose nature is to be kind (Emek Hamelech—a classic Kabbalistic work) ” all His actions are kind and merciful (Likkutei Sichos 23: pg. 98). Hence, there are never any punishments from G-d, only consequences.
An example of this would be the decree that this generation would be denied access to the Promised Land as they would wander aimlessly through the desert for the next forty years. Far from being a punishment, this is precisely what they had asked for, as they refused to enter the Holy Land and wished to maintain the status quo. Hence, when G-d declares that this day will be marked in notoriety, rather than this constituting retribution, it is, rather, a consequence of their words and actions.
The Influence of Our Mindset over Our Performance
In 1968, social psychologists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobsen conducted a fascinating experiment in a Californian School, the findings of which sparked a global phenomenon. They divided students into three randomly selected groups and told each group’s instructors that their students were assessed as above-average, average, and below-average respectively. Incredibly, the performance of each group of students was consistent with what their teachers believed them to be. The group whose instructors thought they were overly talented, performed the best. Those whose teachers thought they were lacking talent, underperformed, and the average group achieved average results.
The findings from the study have proven that the expectation of a leader has a direct impact on the performance of the person they are leading. This became known as “The Pygmalion Effect” or “The Rosenthal effect”—a psychological phenomenon in which high expectations lead to improved performance in a given area and low expectations lead to worse.
A Dreadful Freudian Slip
When we analyze the Biblical narrative of the Ten Evil Spies, we see that they betrayed their true convictions when they added a breathtaking Freudian slip. As they concluded their dismal portrayal of the land and their impossible odds of ever conquering it, they declared “We were like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so were we in theirs (Bamidbar, 13:33).” What the Spies were making abundantly clear here is that they failed to believe in their own ability to conquer the Promised Land, and as a direct consequence of that, the dwellers of the Land perceived them as weak too.
When my wife’s grandparents, Rabbi Gershon Mendel and Bassie Garelik, courageously moved to Milan, Italy in 1959 to establish the first Chabad House in Europe, the prospects of success were dim. Though they worked valiantly to succeed for a number of years, our grandmother finally threw in the towel a few years later as she penned a letter to the Rebbe stating that she was unsuited for the job and that everyone knew it. The Rebbe’s three-page response radically altered her self-confidence as he stated: “If you want to doubt yourself, your abilities, that’s your business. But do you really think it’s right to doubt the one who sent you to Milan and think that he made such a terrible error in sending you to Italy?”
Bubby Garelik quickly got the message and immediately changed her attitude. Soon after, the Chabad House in Italy began to flourish into the global powerhouse that it has become today, servicing hundreds of thousands of residents and visitors each year in over forty centers around the country.
This message is hardly the challenge of a group of individuals or even a single generation. It is so central to Judaism that when the Prophet Samuel scolded the first King of Israel, King Saul, for his failure to fulfill G-d’s command with regard to the war with the nation of Amalek. He states, (Samuel 1: 15:17) “Even if you are small in your own perception, you must know that you are the head of the tribes of Israel!”
And indeed, forty years after the Jews’ shocking rejection of the Promised Land, a new generation arose. Unlike their parents, these men and women were not born in Egyptian slavery—they were born free. They believed in themselves and looked forward to self-determination. When their spies entered the border city of Jericho, a local resident, Rachav, told them that the dwellers of the Land of Israel were so fearful of the Jews that their “hearts had melted (Joshua 2:11).”
What an incredible turnaround! In a span of just forty years, our enemies had evolved from seeing us as grasshoppers to fearing us as giants! This was no mere coincidence—it’s “The Pygmalion Effect” at play. As long as we viewed ourselves as grasshoppers, that’s exactly how others viewed us. But as soon as we mustered the courage and confidence to believe in ourselves as victors, instead of victims, our enemies melted before us!
Finally, we can appreciate the strange words of the Talmud as a chilling self-fulfilling prophecy: As long as we view ourselves as grasshoppers, we are destined to suffer humiliating defeats on this day of Tisha B’av. But as soon as we can muster the strength to reinvent ourselves, seeing ourselves as giants instead of grasshoppers, we will no longer suffer any further failure.
Don’t Blame the Victim
By no means does this exonerate the anti-Semites? In no way am I advocating that the victims are the cause of anti-Semitism. The perpetrators of violence and incitement need to face the full consequences of their crimes. But on a deeper level—higher consciousness—we have to ask ourselves if our weak perceptions of ourselves are facilitating the condescension of our nemeses towards us.
Do you have the courage to stand up for the Promised Land too?
This profound wisdom is anything but Monday-morning quarterbacking. It’s easy for us to criticize the low self-esteem of our Biblical ancestors. The real question is whether or not we still suffer from the same problem today.
When you encounter criticism of Israel, do you cowardly shy away, preferring not to make a scene, or do you stand up to declare the truth—that this is our G-d-given Land, as documented in the world’s most popular book—the Bible—for all to hear? Do you sit like a grasshopper or do you rise like a giant?
It’s painful for us to learn about how our youth are being abused on America’s college campuses. But the tough question that the Talmud is forcing us to face is whether the true enemy we need to fight is our lack of faith—in G-d and in ourselves.
Rabbi Dovid Vigler
Chabad of Palm Beach Gardens
6100 PGA Blvd, Palm Beach Gardens, FL 33418
JewishGardens.com | 561.624.2223