Monday, July 23, 2007

The Mother of All Tragedies

Jerusalem, 70 C.E. The 9th of Av; an eyewitness account:

While the Temple blazed, the victors plundered everything that fell in their way and slaughtered wholesale all who were caught. No pity was shown for age, no reverence for rank; children and greybeards, laity and priests alike were massacred; every class was pursed and encompassed in the grasp of war, whether supplicants for mercy or offering resistance.
The roar of the flames streaming far and wide mingled with the groans of the fallen victims; and, owing to the height of the hill and the mass of the burning pile, one would have thought that the whole city was ablaze. And then the din – nothing more deafening or appalling could be conceived than that. There were the war-cries of the Roman legions sweeping onward in mass, the howls of the rebels encircled by fire and sword, the rush of the people, who, cut off above, fled panic-stricken only to fall into the arms of the foe, and the shrieks as they met their fate. With the cries on the hill were blended those of the multitude in the city below; and now many who were emaciated and tongue-tied from starvation, when they beheld the sanctuary on fire, gathered strength once more for lamentations and wailing.

Josephus, The Jewish War, VI. 271-274

The mother of all tragedies:

The Mishnah tells us (Ta’anit 26a) that five tragic events took place on Tishah B’Av: the sin of the spies, the destruction of the two Temples, the fall of Beitar, and the plowing up of the city of Jerusalem. When the Mishnah writes this, it is not just counting these events. The Mishnah is saying something else, that there is something intrinsic to this day that is responsible for these tragedies. And, in fact, there are not only five, but more than five events that occurred on this day since the time this was written in the Mishnah. Other, later, tragic events also occurred on this day. For example, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 was on Tishah B’Av. And you will find many more as well. It is the day of catastrophe as far as Jewish history is concerned. It is the day of tragedy, as if the day itself was somehow responsible. The day is fatal…
Our history is saturated with pogroms, persecutions, catastrophic events, and all kinds of misfortunes separate and apart from the Temple’s destruction. Half a million Jews, perhaps, were killed during the Middle Ages! Nonetheless, the Rishonim (medieval Rabbinic leaders) were silent. For some reason that we do not understand, they were reluctant to set aside a separate day of fasting and mourning to remember those who were killed for the sanctification of G-d’s Name in the centuries after the destruction of the Temples. Rashi says (II Chron. 35:25) that Tishah B’Av is the day to mourn for any Jewish tragedy. There can be no additional days set aside for mourning and grief, separately designated days of commemoration…
The destruction of the Temple is an all-inclusive concept. If the Temple’s destruction deserves mourning, it is incumbent upon us to mention and feel a sense of mourning on Tishah B’Av for all the catastrophes, tragedies, sufferings, and disasters that happened to the Jewish people during our more than nineteen hundred years of exile, because all of them are a direct result of the Temple’s destruction. Had the destiny of the Temples been different, all the catastrophes and disasters would never have happened. If not for the Temples’ destruction, the Crusades and the Hitler Holocaust, for example, would not have taken place. Everything, every disaster, is a result of the Temples’ destruction; that destruction is responsible for everything.

R. J.B. Soloveitchik, The Lord is Righteous in All His Ways, pgs. 208-214

Why do we still mourn? Isn’t the city rebuilt?

Much impressed by appearances, the casual uninformed observer might well have reason to ask, ‘Why do we continue to plead so desperately for Jerusalem to be rebuilt? True, we have no Temple and we cannot sacrifice offerings, but we can hardly say the city still lays in ruins!’
This question can be answered with an analogy to the patient who receives a heart transplant. The patient is up and around and appears to be healthy, but he is filled with anxiety lest his new heart be rejected or malfunction…
Similarly, the heart of mankind in general and the Jews in particular is the Beis HaMikdash, the Holy Temple. In that location, Adam was created and there G-d breathed life into his nostrils. G-d continued to pump vitality into mankind through the Temple until it was destroyed. Now, we are still maintained, but it is not the same. We are weak and fragile, susceptible to spiritual and moral contamination and disease. We are easily worn out. The whole system can collapse at any time.

R. A.C. Feuer, The Complete Tishah B’Av Service, pg. xv

The Diaspora Jew looks east:

Yerushalayim, rising in its throat-catching beauty on the shores of the Mediterranean, but for all that, lodged firmly in our hearts. Loyalty and longing. A city pining for her children and they? And they, undeterred by endless centuries, unhampered by weary distance, defiantly remain eternal wanderers because they know that outside Yerushalayim they can never really be home.

R. M.M. Eisemann, Harp Strings & Heart Strings, pg. 67

A bold prayer of hope:

Why do You ignore us eternally; forsake us for so long? Bring us back to You, G-d, and we shall return; renew our days as of old. For even if You were disgusted [with our behavior], You have already raged sufficiently against us.

Lamentations, 5:20-22

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Men are from Egypt, Women are from Israel

If you can remember back to the beginning of the book of Bamidbar, our story began with a census. Now it’s forty years later and the Jews stand on the banks of the Jordan, ready to enter the Promised Land. Here G-d orders another census. The numbers haven’t changed much and this count might seem insignificant, but it serves to make a depressing point:

Among those [counted now] there was not one man [who was previously] counted by Moshe and Aaron the priest when they took a census of the Jews in the Sinai Desert. This was because G-d had decreed to them, “They shall die in the desert.” Not a single man survived, with the exception of Calev the son of Yefunah and Yehoshuah the son of Nun.

Bamidbar 26:64-65

The terrible sins of the Golden Calf and the episode of the spies doomed the generation of the Exodus to death in the desert. This explains why the nation had not grown. The privilege of entry into the Promised Land would be reserved for the next generation, the children.

Rashi notes the stress on “men” in the verses above. “Not one man [who was previously] counted by Moshe and Aaron the priest…” “Not a single man survived.” What about the women?

The women were not included in the decree [that resulted from the sin] of the spies, for they loved the land [of Israel]. The men said, “Let’s appoint a [new] leader and return to Egypt” (Bamidbar 14:4), but the women said, “Give us a piece of property!” (27:4).

Rashi ad loc.

The sin of the spies was perpetrated solely by men! The truth is, this surprising fact is evident from the language of the sin itself. Here is the recorded reaction of the Jews when they heard the spies’ defeatist report:

That night, the people wept… “We wish we had died in Egypt! We should have died in this desert! Why is G-d bringing us to this land to die by the sword? Our wives and children will be captives! It would be best to go back to Egypt…”

Bamidbar 14:1-3

Obviously it is men who are speaking here and not women. Only men would worry about “wives” being taken captive.

While the primary sin was a lack of faith in G-d’s ability to defeat the enemy, there is another point here. The men are apparently only concerned about their own lives and the lives of their wives and children. This is understandable; they love life and they love their families. But what about Israel? Is their no love for Israel? Should they not also bemoan the loss of the Promised Land? Does the homeland of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov mean nothing to them? The eternal divine promise, the dream of the Exodus, the great national aspiration to build a Jewish state in the Holy Land goes up in smoke and no one says a word?! This is a tragedy all its own. Had the Jews only mourned the perceived loss of Israel, or even just expressed some upsetness, their fate would surely have been different.

The depressing census of our parsha, which revealed that the men had all died out because they betrayed Israel, is followed by the inspiring story of the daughters of Tzelafchad – women whose love for Israel was strong and proud.

The daughters of Tzelafchad came forward [with a petition]. [Tzelafchad was] the son of Chefer, [who was the] son of Gilead, son of Machir, son of Menashe, of the family of Yosef’s son Menashe…
“Our father died in the desert… Why should our father’s name be disadvantaged in his family merely because he did not have a son? Give us a piece of property along with our father’s brothers.”

Bamidbar 27:1,3-4

These women have confidence in an ultimate Jewish victory in Israel, and their confidence has its source in faith in G-d and a love for the Promised Land.

Rashi notes the stress here on linage. Why does the Torah need to trace these women back to Yosef? Rashi’s answer is that their love for Israel came to them from their great zeide.

Why does the verse say “of the family of Yosef’s son Menashe”? It already told us [that Machir was] “son of Menashe.” The point is this: Yosef loved Israel, as we can see [from his last will] “You will bring up my bones from here” (Bereishit 50:25) and his granddaughters loved Israel [as we can see from their request] “Give us a piece of property.” This teaches you that everyone [in this line back to Yosef] was righteous.

Rashi ad loc.

In other words, Yosef’s love for Israel was faithfully passed down from one righteous generation to the next, through the painful exile of Egypt, until it expressed itself centuries later in the daughters of Tzelafchad – even though neither they nor their fathers had ever seen the place! With the right education, love for Israel can survive the Diaspora.

Again, it is women whose love for Israel shines through. This love protected them from the sin of the spies, but we should remember that women did not participate in the Sin of the Golden Calf either (Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer 45). Women are the unsung heroes of the Desert Generation.

What are we to make of all this? Is the Torah telling us something about women? Are women special? I don’t think so. All we are being told here is that they didn’t sin. There is nothing special about women who don’t sin; there is something wrong with men who do. The Torah is saying something to Jewish men. It would seem that innate gender differences are at the root of these observable discrepancies in behavior.

Without stereotyping, we should be aware of certain common tendencies. It is a masculine characteristic to be aggressive and reckless. “Boys will be boys.” And it is a feminine characteristic to be patient, sentimental and concerned about relationships and love. These are generalities, but that doesn’t make the reality any less real.

When it comes to our relationship with Israel, it wouldn’t hurt Jewish men to be a little more feminine.