Lessons from Tishah B’Av

July 16, 2018 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Why do Jews blame themselves?…ask the rabbi.

Rabbi Raymond Apple

What strange people the sages were.

Two Temples were laid waste, Jewish sovereignty was terminated, millennia of exile and persecution set in, and all that the sages could do was to blame the Jewish people for their own misfortunes.

What did they say?

“Umip’nei chatan’einu…” Jews fell out with each other, people didn’t respect one another, the commandments were broken, the Sabbath was desecrated, the prayers weren’t said – all the reasons for the destruction were internal.

The medieval poets built up the cruelty of the enemy; even Jeremiah who watched the sanctuary burn suspected that God had become an enemy; but the rabbis said the Jews themselves were at fault.

Was it that they were simply facing the facts, realising that no-one in those days, no nation, no group, no culture, would have possessed the power to stand against the might of Rome with a hope of prevailing?

There were many enemies over the centuries. The worst and most brutal was in the 20th century.

Plain honesty would have dictated that Jews should have said, “We are a tiny people, never strong enough to beat a determined enemy… but give us credit for at least having enough self-respect to fight until we dropped!”

Maybe the explanation is that the rabbis were hinting at something far more important in cosmic terms than casting blame.

If historic blame were necessary, it should be laid at the feet of the adversary. But in the end that might have been counter-productive.

It might have led us to say, “We’re never going to be able to defeat the enemy – Egypt, Babylon, Rome, whoever. They’re always going to be bigger and mightier than us. Why should we exert ourselves, only to get killed? We’re going to die anyway. Let’s do it and get it over with!”

That’s not what the rabbis had in mind – a sort of acceptance of weakness, a decision for suicide, an abandonment of Jewish bride, an abdication of identity, a hammer to history, an axe to aspiration.

What the rabbis were more concerned with was how to do something for the future.

Living as good Jews might not save us from destruction, but it was a restatement of what Judaism believed in, a determination to say, “Jews might die, but with beliefs like ours Judaism will live.

“It may have to go underground at times, but it will always be reborn as the seed which will eventually make the world a paradise again.”


One of the reasons for the tragedy of Tishah B’Av is said to be “sinat chinnam”, groundless hatred.

When people were unfair and unjust towards each other, Jewish society disintegrated. It became easier for the enemy to prevail.

The haftarah is insistent: if a better future is to be built, says Isaiah, the way is that of greater justice in society – “Seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Isa. 1:17).

If Zion is to be restored, the precondition is that “Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and her returning exiles with righteousness” (verse 27).

In many ways, for all its diversity and problems, today’s State of Israel has become a place of justice. People debate and grumble incessantly, but there is so much instinctive chesed, concern for and kindness to others, that it is breathtaking.

Also breathtaking, in a different sense, is the ferocity of some who should know better, who throw stones to force people to keep Shabbat. If you ask, “Is it permitted in Jewish law to throw stones on Shabbat?”, the right question is, “Is it permitted to throw stones even on weekdays?”

Chesed entails “tzedek”, justice, listening to the other point of view, seeing the other’s position, talking together with love, patience and respect, trying to persuade them if possible – but at all times knowing that they too are God’s children and part of “b’rit goral”, Israel’s covenant of destiny.

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