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Tisha B’Av: The Secret to Survival
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First thing is this, let’s think about Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai in relationship to the other sort of major characters in the story; and by other major characters in the story, I am thinking particularly of Rav Tzadok on the one hand and the Zealots on the other hand. So let’s ask this question about all of them, “what are they seeking?” and let’s start with Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai. What is Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai is seeking and is what he is seeking the same or different from what Rav Tzadok and the Zealots and the Chachamim, as a matter of fact, what they’re all seeking? Let’s start with what they are all seeking. The answer to that of course is simple - they are seeking the salvation of Jerusalem.
What does Rav Tzadok agrees on with the Zealots? More than they are seeking the salvation of Jerusalem, they are seeking to sort of force God’s hand to save Jerusalem; as a matter of fact, they are seeking to force God’s hand to save Jerusalem in a particular way - through deprivation of food. What are the Zealots doing? They are trying to force a resolution on the Jerusalem question. We don’t want to wait it out. We don’t want to see what will happen, we want to burn our feed stores to force us left in the city to fight. To force God to come out of the clouds and save things. And interestingly, Rav Tzadok is the other extreme, because even though he’s not advocating fighting, look at what he’s doing. Everyday he’s fasting; trying to do what? Also to force God’s hand as it were to save Jerusalem - “you’ll let me die of starvation God? Save Jerusalem!” So both Rav Tzadok and the Zealots are in a certain curious kind of way doing the same thing, they are trying to force someone’s hand - force the inhabitants of Jerusalem, force God into saving Jerusalem by the deprivation of food.
Now let’s look at Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai. What is Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai trying to achieve and how is he trying to achieve it? Let’s start with the first question - “what is he trying to achieve?” Is he trying to achieve the same thing as Rav Tzadok and the Zealots? Well, what might have been seen as the simplest answer to that is that he is trying to achieve something else.The Zealots and Rav Tzadok for that matter are trying to achieve the salvation of Jerusalem, of an independent Jewish state with it’s capital in Jerusalem; political independence. And Rav Yochanan is trying to achieve something else. Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai is trying to save Yavneh, is trying to achieve salvation for a particular minority group of scholars,trying to get a doctor for Rav Tzadok; doesn’t seem to have his eye on Jewish nationhood at all. But that would be how I would have seen it before looking at the story of Tanur Shel Achnai. Having looked at the story of Tanur Shel Achnai I think we can say with confidence, Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai was actually trying to achieve the exact same thing - the salvation of Jewish nationhood; it’s just he was trying to save Jewish nationhood on other terms. He was trying to create a lifeboat. He was trying to stitch back the broken skeleton of Jewish nationhood with sand; the sands of Yavneh. It was a bold new experiment. The Jewish people would be able to survive in exile because there would be this force that united them, this dynamic force within themselves, from which these values came as people , and that force is Torah. Learning it, studying it, developing it would be the creative activity the Jews would unite around and would build a civilisation around. Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai was seeking to save what they were saving albeit on different terms.
Ok. So much for ‘what’ these various people were trying to save, let’s talk about ‘how’ they were trying to save it and here we get to a very interesting contrast. Rav Tzadok and the Zealots, as different as they were ,really, as we talked about before, employing the same sort f approach. They were trying to force someone's hands; either the hands of the fighters within the city, or the hand of God to save Jerusalem and they were trying to do so by depriving themselves or others of food; even to the point of death! What was Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai trying to do? Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai wasn’t trying to force anyone’s hand, he was taking initiative on his own to save this entity - Jewish nationhood - on his own terms. He was not going to risk death. Instead, he was going to pretend that he is already dead.
Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai looked at the gold that the others were trying to preserve - an independent, free, politically sovereign Jerusalem and Jewish state - and he realized that the answer to that theologically was already no. Instead of trying to save it, he smuggled himself out of the walls of that dying state pretending to be dead but he was not really dead. He wasn’t dead, so to speak, on two levels. One is he just wasn’t dead. But he was more than physically alive. He represented the Sages of Yavneh; he was the head of those Sages. And in that capacity, he wasn’t dead.
Think about the request that he was making of Vespasian - “spare Yavneh and it’s Sages”. Why would Vespasian say yes to that? And how come Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai didn’t ask him to spare Jerusalem as a whole? He didn’t ask him to spare Jerusalem as a whole because he didn’t think he could get away with it because Vespasian was bent on destroying the Jewish nation and to spare a politically independent Jerusalem was simply not on the cards. But to spare Yavneh? That Vespasian would do. Why? Because in Vespasian's eyes, it was dead! What am I being asked to spare anyway? A couple old Sages debating about some laws in a musty room in Yavneh? Big deal! The Torah law as we know it, took off with the Sages creating a golden age of Jewish learning that kept our nation alive. That Torah is dynamic. As we talked about before, it’s the foundation of our lifeboat civilization. Vespasian didn’t understand how alive it was. He didn’t understand the secrets of lo bashamayim hi. Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai was faking death. He only appeared to be dead; what he represented only appeared to be dead. In fact, it was alive and vibrant and would keep the dreams of Jewish nationhood alive until, if necessary, thousands of years later, it could be reconstituted as a traditional nation on it’s own independent soil.
We get a very vivid picture I think, of God’s view of this all through one last part of the story, through the strange story of Marta bat Beitus and Rav Tzadok fig. You’ll remember that Rav Tzadok was starving after all these years of fasting for Jerusalem and finally to revive himself, took this dried fig and sucked the juice out of it; discarded the shell. Marta bat Beitus, she found the shell of the fruit lying in the gutter and ate it and died. What a strange story and what does it mean?
So to understand what’s really going on, let’s think about Rav Tzadok and let me ask you this question - what he had been praying for,how did God respond to it? Did God say yes or no? Now, the answer to that is not so clear. Now, at face value, God said no. He’d been praying for the preservation independent Jerusalem, he’d been praying for the body politic of the Jewish state as we know it to be able to survive the Roman onslaught and God ‘s answer to that was “no”. But at a deeper level, God wasn’t really saying no, he was just rejecting the outer form of Rav Tzadok’s prayer; but he was keeping its inner essence. He would answer Rav Tzadok “yes”, but not in the way you’re requesting. I will save the Jewish state, I will save the Jewish national dream, but you’re just asking for the outer shell, you’re just asking for the preservation of Jerusalem, I can’t give you that now; but I can suck the essence out of your request while discarding the rind .
The walls, the sidewalks, the buildings, the institutions of Jerusalem will fall - the rind of the fig- but the disembodied essence of Jewish nationhood, the dynamic of live Torah, that you human beings will develop in the centuries to come starting with Yavneh, that, that I will give you. God took the essence of a prayer while discarding its outer form. Rav Tzadok too, sucked the essence out of the physical thing and discarded the shell. And then there was Marta bat Beitus; she is the old order. God had rejected the outer form of Rav Tzadok prayer; Rav Tzadok had rejected the outer form of the fig. That dried fig with all the essence sucked out of it lying in the street was rejection, she consumed that rejection and died. The old order was coming to an end even while the new life boat,so to speak, was just being launched.
I want to conclude by coming back to the three things that Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai asked Vespasian for. He didn’t just asked him for the preservation of Yavneh and it’s wise men, he also asked him for two seemingly trivial things: a doctor to heal Rav Tzadok, the family of Rabban Gamliel. Why did he asked for these things?
In Yavneh and it’s wise men, he was asking, a we’ve talked about, for something which appeared dead but was really alive. Yavneh would be Jewish nationhood for the time being , reconstituted as a castle in the sand on the basis of Torah and it’s development alone. But in order for the lifeboat to survive, it required a connection to the conventional kind of Jewish nationhood, the kind of Jewish nationhood that was disappearing. One part of that connection was Rabban Gamliel’s family. As Rashi comments “ Rabban Gamliel’s - the Nasi, the head of the political branch of Jewish nationhood at the time, he could trace his lineage back to King David”. Who is King David?
King David is the archetype of conventional Jewish nationhood. A king, the center of executive power of a sovereign nation in it’s own land, a little piece of that is still alive in Rabban Gamliel’s family. You take that along with you into the lifeboat, because the lifeboat can only survive if it’s connected to the source from which it came. And what else do you take with you into the lifeboat? You take a doctor for Rav Tzadok. Rav Tzadok, more than anyone else, was passionately consumed with the salvation of Jerusalem - no one mourns Jerusalem like Rav Tzadok; he’s got to go in the lifeboat too. The reason is because the mourning of Rav Tzadok, the undying passion of Rav Tzadok is what keeps Jewish nations alive in exile. You see, when you mourn unceasingly, that does something for you; it keeps you connected to that which you mourn.
When we mourn on Tisha B’Av, when we get down on the floor, and try to cry about the loss of Jerusalem, we’re invoking, perhaps the most personal part of how an individual relates to Judaism; mourning, crying for loss. What you normally do for your mother, for your father, for a loved one who’s gone, and now you’re doing that for a national loss, the loss of the presence of God in our national existence as a people. That’s what we’re crying for. It’s like our father, our national father, is no longer here in the house; in our national house. Now God has separated from us in another world, in a spiritual world, in his own world; but he used to be in our world, right here in our own national house ;we’re mourning that loss. And here we are, sitting on the floor, mourning it like a personal loss.
For a few hours every year, it’s like we’re sitting in shiver, and when we do that, we’re getting in touch with a part of ourselves that’s so easy to lose. Rav Tzadok’s tears keeps us connected to the Jerusalem of old. Lifeboat can’t survive without that connection. We won’t be able to ultimately, thousands of years later,reconstitute Jewish nationhood on it’s own land with true political independence as we open the doors to the lifeboat without that connection to what we lost. And that’s why we continue to mourn, that’s why we never get over this loss, that’s why years later,we sit on the floor, all of us, on Tisha B’Av, and we mourn as if it were yesterday. It is that mourning that keeps us connected. It’s because the Jewish people have always cried over the loss of Jerusalem; that Jerusalem, thousands of years later, can ultimately be reborn.
Hi, this is Rabbi Fohrman. I want to thank you so much for watching our Tisha B’Av course, I really hope you enjoyed it. We’re always working on new and exciting courses for you. I want to encourage you to subscribe to our Aleph Beta Academy Library today, you’ll get unlimited access to all this fantastic content . I hope you will join us and support what we do and continue learning with us.
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