As a rabbi in the late 60s and 70s, I remember trying to make Tisha B’Av relevant to my congregation by references to the Vietnam war. In the 80s and 90s the temporal proximity of Tisha B’Av to the anniversary of the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan was an often used connection, although there really was no parallel because the two atom bombs quickly ended World War 2 and thus saved more lives than they took. The ending of the cold war and the threat of nuclear holocaust made even the terrible image of the mushroom cloud less relevant.
Unfortunately, the rise of political and religious extremism throughout the world in general, and in Israel and Jerusalem in particular, has made learning the lessons of Tisha b’Av vital to the future of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. Over the last 55 years, I have come to appreciate more and more the wisdom of many of our Rabbis’ comments related to Tisha B’Av.
When, at HUC, I first came across the argument that-we were exiled and Jerusalem was destroyed because of our sins-I was outraged. I thought it was blaming the victim, as was routinely the practice in rape cases in those days. When this explanation was occasionally used by some Orthodox rabbis in reference to the Holocaust, I was more than outraged; I was nauseated.
I thought they were simply blaming Jews for God’s failure to protect Jews from their enemies; or more accurately to protect their own orthodox theologies about God’s potency for reward and punishment in this world.
But, in the last two decades, several examples of extremist beliefs and actions among some political and religious leaders in Jerusalem have changed my mind. In the Land of Israel Jews do have some power to direct the course of their history, and therefore they do have a responsibility to act wisely. Failure to do so can lead to catastrophic loss not just for individuals but for a whole community.
I used to think that Tisha b’Av was a service dedicated to self centered self pity. as shown in the following passages from the midrash: “”When punishment occurs Jacob alone experiences it”; (Eicha Rabbah II :7) or, “Don’t the Gentiles sin? But although they sin, no punishment follows. Israel, however sinned and was punished.” (I:35) or “In Egypt there were more than 70 peoples, and of them all only Israel was subjected to slavery.” (Deuteronomy Rabbah IV 9)
But for the last two to three decades I have increasingly thought that correctly taught Tisha b’Av has the potential to serve as an occasion for teaching some of the most important lessons the next generation of Jews in Israel and abroad can learn.
Yoma 39b relates that when Solomon built the First temple he fashioned marvelous trees of gold in it. When the fruit trees outside Solomon’s Temple produced fruit, the golden trees inside the Temple also fruited. When did they wilt? Rabbi Hosha’ya in the Babylonian Talmud said, “When strangers entered the Temple.” Rabbi Yitzhaq Hinena bar Yitzhaq in the Jerusalem Talmud said, “When King Menasseh set up an idol in the Temple.” (2Kings 21:7) A rabbi in Babylon blames strangers. A rabbi in Israel blames Jews.
What are the political consequences of choosing to blame others? What are the psychological consequences of choosing to blame yourself? How will others view you if you are constantly blaming yourself for your misfortune? How do people achieve balance between the normal tendency to shift the blame to others and the acquired tendency to be overly self critical?
There is a well known and often repeated midrash about Zechariah’s seething blood and justice/vengeance that explores the complexity of accepting responsibility for everything, as opposed to the normal tendency for scapegoating everything.
Outrage and fury can make ones blood seethe. Holding a grudge for decades; and long term desire for national vengeance can stimulate people to do terrible things (look at Bosnia).
Zechariah was a priest and a prophet who stood above the people and admonished them. King Joash (ruled 836-798 BCE) gave orders to have Zechariah killed, and he was stoned to death in the courtyard of the Temple. As he was dying, he said, “May the Lord see and requite this.” (2 Chronicles 24:17-22)
Two hundred years later the Babylonian general Nebuzaradan and his army conquered Jerusalem. When he entered the Holy Temple, Nebuzaradan saw a pool of blood seething and bubbling in the inner courtyard before the alter. He asked the priests: What is the matter with this blood? He was told it was blood from the daily offerings. He said, “Tell me the truth or I will have all of you whipped.
“The priests replied, “What can we say to you. There was a priest among us named Zechariah who was also a prophet. He used to reprove us (priests and rulers) for the transgressions we committed, so we rose up against him and killed him. It has been many years now and his blood has not become still.
“Nebuzaradan said, “I will put it to rest.” He ordered the arrest of all the judges in Jerusalem and had them executed next to the blood, but the blood did not rest. He then killed all the young priests, but the blood did not stop seething. He then ordered young men and women from the general population of the city to be killed, but the blood continued to boil. He even ordered the slaughter of school children but the blood would not rest.
“Finally general Nebuzaradan drew near the blood and said, “Zechariah, Zechariah, I have slain the best of them. Do you want me to kill all of them? At that the blood stopped seething.” (Gitten 57b and Sanhedrin 96b)
Does it take a non-Jewish outsider, indeed an enemy, to make a zealot prophet (or his disciples) calm down? Captain Alfred Dreyfus was an innocent man framed and convicted of treason in a Paris court martial. Although he was pardoned years later, the fallout from the case poisoned French politics for decades. Like the assassination of Zechariah, it could not be laid to rest. The French Army and right wing politicians would not admit to the miscarriage of justice. The left would not stop their attacks. Was that good or bad?
Should justice be subordinated to the goal of reconciliation? If the outrages sin of slavery had been outlawed by the Constitutional Convention, even if only gradually or at a future time, Americans would not have been afflicted 70 years later by a civil war that killed 600,000 people, 2/3 of them civilians. But the United States might have started with only eight or ten states instead of thirteen.
The rulers of Jerusalem, priests and judges, were complicit in Zechariah’s death so their descendants were held responsible. But what about the young men and women? What about the school children? Zechariah’s public stoning by the priests went unpunished by the judges. Did zeal for justice become a seething rage for vengeance?.
Did it become unrestrained hatred that only grew as the decades went by without priests in later generations apologizing for the sins of their fathers? Can zealous righteousness lead to sin?
The talmudic account treats the Babylonian general Nebuzaradan gently. The account closes with a statement that in later years Nebuzaradan converted to Judaism. Why was that included? Another midrash centuries later relates that Nero, a Roman general sent to destroy Jerusalem, instead “fled and converted to Judaism in Jerusalem.
One of his descendants was the famous Rabbi Meir.” (Me’am Lo’ez to Deuteronomy 4:26) Why are both generals reported to have become converts to Judaism?
The account of Zechariah seething blood appears multiple times, in somewhat different versions, in the midrash collection Eicha Rabbah (proem 23 claims Zechariah spoke arrogantly; II: 4, questions where the stoning took place; IV: 16, lists seven sin committed on that one day).
Two versions state that Nebuzaradan regretted carrying out his slaughter, and God in response hinted to the blood to be still. Was this added to put God into the story, or to emphasize the power of Nebuzaradan’s repentance, or to play down a Gentile’s role in calming Zechariah’s seething blood by exposing the prophet’s extremism?
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.” (Shabbat 119b) Does this apply to all the rabbis of Israel who do not condemn and reprove the ‘price tag vandals’ and those who ‘understand” them?