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With the destruction of the temple taking place so long ago, how are we expected to feel so much grief that we justify our mourning rituals from the 17th of Tammuz to the 9th of Av? Dr. Gila Vachman, Lecturer in Midrash at Schechter Institutes of Jewish Studies and Coordinator of Torah Lishma in Tel Aviv, shares a Midrash with an interesting approach to how to identify with a tragedy much after it took place.
Watch the video and read the article:
We are standing now at the beginning of the period called בין המצרים (literally: In the narrow places), or שלושת השבועות – the three weeks between the seventeenth day of Tamuz and Tisha B’Av.
The Mishna in מסכת תענית mentions five matters which occurred to our forefathers on the seventeenth of Tammuz:
“On the 17th of Tammuz, the tablets were broken; the daily offering (תמיד) was nullified; the city walls were breached; Apostemos burned the Torah scroll, and an idol was placed in the Sanctuary.” Even without deep learning of this Mishna, it is clear that it speaks of different periods in history:
The breaking of the tablets belongs to the generation wandering in the desert. It is the first severe breakpoint in the relationship between the people of Israel and God. In a way, it anticipates the destruction before the temple was built.
“The daily offering (תמיד) was nullified” – this, naturally, belongs to the time of the temple. The building is still standing, but the daily activity that took place was completely damaged.
“The city walls of were breached” – the city is, of course, Jerusalem. The event mentioned here was a crucial stage toward the Second Temple’s destruction in 70 AD.
As for the fourth and fifth events, “Apostemos burned the Torah and an idol was placed in the Sanctuary” it is uncertain what exactly these events are. In my opinion, it does not matter. What matters is that we have a collection of events that may not be the destruction itself but predict the approaching disaster. These events are the reason why we decrease our joy and practice customs of אבלות during this period.
For many of us, this sadness might seem artificial and irrelevant. After all, 2000 years have passed since the destruction of the Second Temple, and it is difficult for a person of our times to feel sadness for a disaster that took place so long ago.
Midrash Eikha Rabbah presents an approach to the subject of being able to identify with a tragedy a long time after it happened:
The Midrash tells us that Rebbi, Rabbi Judah, the redactor of the Mishna, had 24 different interpretations for the verse from the scroll of Eikha, בִּלַּע אֲדֹנָי וְלֹא חָמַל, אֵת כָּל נְאוֹת יַעֲקֹב הָרַס בְּעֶבְרָתוֹ (The Lord has laid waste without pity all the habitations of Jacob), whereas Rabbi Yohanan – who lived many years after him – had 60 interpretations on this verse.
The Midrash explains: not because R. Yohanan was greater or smarter than R. Judah, but because Rebbi was “closer to the destruction of the temple” (these are the words of the midrash) and therefore “he would remember, expound, cry, and be consoled” while R. Yohanan, who was not so close to the destruction, could go on expounding and interpreting.
In other words, the distance from the disaster enables us to discuss it.
It should be noted that: R. Judah lived about 150 years after the destruction, which means he only heard about it from the elders and did not experience it himself. And yet, the sages of the midrash see him as someone who was “close to the event” and therefore unable to speak about it without crying.
I believe this story bears a lesson for our generation as well:
The question of what we are mourning and how we mourn when it comes to a national disaster is not a matter of how much time has passed. It depends on how connected we feel; how meaningful the event is for us. And in that sense, the destruction of the temple changed Judaism completely. It was a breakpoint caused by great hatred within the people of Israel, and in that sense, it is still relevant. Indeed, we live in an era of אתחלתא דגאולה, the beginning of redemption, but we still have so much more to fix!
Shavua tov, from Schechter.
**Beginning immediately after Pesach and until August, Parashat Hashavua in the Diaspora is one week ‘behind’ the Parasha in Israel. Shavua Tov@Schechter will follow the Diaspora schedule.
Dr. Gila Vachman is a Lecturer in Midrash at The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and coordinates The Schechter Rabbinical Seminary’s Torah Lishmah program at Neve Schechter in Tel Aviv.
Dr. Gila Vachman received her BA (summa cum laude) in Talmud and Hebrew Literature, MA (summa cum laude) in Midrash and Aggadah, and her PhD from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She is also a lecturer in Midrash and Aggadah at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Born on Kibbutz Yavne, Dr. Vachman is married, the mother of three children, and lives in Jerusalem.