One of the benefits of being part of the Jewish People is that we have a long memory. Our survival is remarkable, given how history has presented us with physical as well as spiritual challenges. Although we remember the past, we have been condemned to repeat it, again and again.
The Jewish calendar is a reservoir for our communal memory. The stories we tell about our past flow through our rituals and the recital of blessing and readings. The stories we tell matter; they create our sense of purpose and peoplehood.
Tisha b’Av is often seen as a time when we raise to our awareness the multiple defeats of Jewish history. Principally, we mourn for the loss of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel.
Yet our tradition asks us to do more than simply assume the role of victim. The Chofetz Chaim suggests that one of our tasks on Tisha b’Av is to read the account of the destruction of the Temple as told in Talmud (Mishnah Berurah 554.3).
When the rabbis of the Talmud (Gittin 55b – 56a) look back at the destruction of the Temple in the summer of the year 70CE, they do so unflinchingly. The story they tell is one of multiple failures at all levels of the Jewish people. Instead of hiding our foolishness in the footnotes, they place it centre-stage.
So the story is told that there was a wealthy man in Jerusalem, who wanted to invite his friends and acquaintances to a party. This man had a friend named Kamtza and an enemy named Bar Kamtza.
By mistake, the servant delivered the invitation to the wrong recipient, so that when Bar Kamtza arrived at the party, the host immediately asked him to leave. He pleaded to stay, even offering to pay for the cost of the party. Instead, the host unceremoniously threw him out.
Bar Kamtza, the disgraced guest, then resolved to seek his revenge by inflaming relations between the Jews of Jerusalem and the Roman authorities. He didn’t only blame the host, he felt let down by the entire Jewish establishment, who were present at the party but failed to speak up for him.
So Bar Kamtza went to the Roman governor and concocted a claim that the Jews were planning a rebellion. Through a series of mishaps, the Jewish establishment were unable to allay the fears of Rome and eventually they launched their siege on Jerusalem.
The siege of Jerusalem lasted for three years. At the time there was a group of nationalistic zealots called the biryonim. Rashi, in his commentary, calls them ‘anashim reikim vepochazim le-milkhamah – airheads and warmongers’.
At the start of the siege of Jerusalem, the zealots were a marginal group. The populace of Jerusalem were able to survive thanks to provisions that had been put aside over many years. These ensured that the inhabitants were able to endure the long siege of Jerusalem.
However, the zealots had a different plan. They wanted to radicalise the inhabitants in order to turn them against their moderate leaders. So zealots burned the stores of wheat and barley and a devastating famine ensued.
When the leader of the moderates, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, called Abba Sikra, the head of the zealots, to account, charging him with driving the inhabitants to despair, Abba Sikra’s reply was, “What can I do; if I tell them to stop they will kill me.” Once fanaticism is unleashed, it is hard to call back.
Events of history overtook the beleaguered Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem. The tenth legion of the Roman Army destroyed Jerusalem in a bloodbath that even by Roman standards was worth writing home about. The Arch of Titus, whose central relief captures the spoils from the war on Jerusalem, was erected for this purpose.
Yet the Talmudic account does not dwell on the depravities of Rome. Instead, it suggests a three-part failure on behalf of the Jewish leadership at the time.
First of all, this was an educational failure on the part of the rabbis, whose task it was to teach values and openness. They had been remiss in not creating an atmosphere of mutual respect, to create a language of civility and derech eretz.
Second, there was a moral failure. As hostility grew among the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Jewish leaders were unwilling and unable to confront it. The implication was that they knew that things were getting worse, but chose not to intervene.
Finally, there was failure of political imagination. As the relations with Rome got more fraught, there was a lack of creative thinking, an inability to go beyond business-as-usual. The geopolitical situation was changing but the Jewish leaders were stuck, unable to see the bigger picture.
Today, Israel again is beleaguered and embattled. The last few weeks have been harrowing. Yet again our leaders are locked in defensive patterns of thought, moderates find themselves attacked from all sides and modern-day zealots reap the fruits of fear and despair.
That is why this Tisha b’Av must be different. Like the Chofetz Chaim admonished us, it must serve as a reminder of the fragility of Jewish sovereignty and our own responsibility in safeguarding it. It is not enough to blame those who wish for our destruction. We need to forge a path to a better future ourselves.
Never again can we allow nationalistic zealots to push the moderate majority to the extremes. The zealots thought they were saving the Jewish state. They believed that their fiery passion would ensure Jewish survival. Yet they acted out of misplaced love and the Jewish People survived not because but in spite of their actions.
Never again can we tolerate a situation where we allow inflexibility of thought and prejudice to hinder us from seeking a negotiated solution. We need to apply the full breadth of our imagination to engender a reality where a long-term agreement ensuring mutual security can be reached.
And finally, never again can we accept that our political and spiritual leaders remain reticent. If our leaders are unable or unwilling to make courageous headway towards a workable solution, then we will have to get to work ourselves.
Time has come for the moderate majority to raise their voices.