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Sage advice on Tisha B’Av

  • Calev-Ben-Dor-1
Henry Kissinger once wrote that the task of statesmen is to recognise the real relationship of forces, to distinguish what is attainable from what is desirable, and to make this knowledge serve their ends. Yet, more than a millennium before Kissinger’s advice, the Babylonian Talmud tried its hand at advising political and national leaders.
by CALEV BEN-DOR | Aug 08, 2019

In the introduction to the account of the second temple’s destruction, which we mourn on Tisha B’Av, the text quotes a verse from Proverbs, “Happy is the man who is anxious always, but he who hardens his heart falls into misfortune.” Coming as it does before the story of Jerusalem’s destruction, this is clearly meant as advice. But how does it relate to the subsequent story?

The Talmudic tale describes a case of mistaken identity leading inexorably to tragedy: a servant invites the wrong guest to a feast, Bar Kamtza (the host’s enemy) rather than Kamtza (the host’s friend). When the host throws Bar Kamtza out – and the rabbis present do nothing to assuage his shame – he makes a false report to the Romans that the Jews are rebelling.

With Roman legions besieging Jerusalem, the city’s zealots burn the storehouses of grain in a misguided attempt to force the capital’s helpless residents to fight. As famine ensues, the great sage Yochanan ben Zakai flees the city, to “save a little” as he says, and having impressed Roman Emperor Vespasian with his acumen, he is granted one wish. Believing that Jerusalem can’t be saved under any circumstances, Ben Zakai begs to be given “Yavneh and its sages”. And while this wish is granted, the city and Temple are burned.

There lies a long and winding road of responsibility for the Temple’s destruction: the brutal zealots, the inhospitable host, the vengeful guest, the ambivalent rabbis, and, of course, the imperialist Romans. But Rabbi Akiva points an accusatory finger at the door of Yochanan ben Zakai, who he argues missed a golden opportunity to save the city.

Sixty years later, the same Akiva is one of the main supporters of the unsuccessful revolt against the Romans by Bar Cochba, an event that also ends in tragedy (and is also marked on the 9th of Av). Almost two thousand years on, in a rebuilt Jerusalem, the debate continues over whether Bar Cochba was a brave, daring hero restoring Jewish pride, or the irresponsible harbinger of national suicide.

What lies at the core of the argument between Rabbis Yochanan and Akiva? I believe we should understand it through a political-sociological prism namely, how a nation (and its leaders) should act when its core values are under existential threat. Should it adapt those values to survive (give me Yavneh)? Or hold on to them even at the risk of death (rebel against Rome)?

In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, author Jared Diamond argues that the key to a society’s survival is its ability to adapt its core values. But he adds that it’s painfully difficult to decide to abandon some of one’s core values when they seem to be becoming incompatible with survival. Diamond explains that all such decisions involve gambles, because one often can’t be certain that clinging to core values will be fatal, or (conversely) that abandoning them will ensure survival.

As an example, he gives the historical cases of five small Eastern European countries faced with the overwhelming might of Russian armies. In this frightening context, the Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians surrendered their independence in 1939 without a fight; the Finns fought from 1939 to 1940, and preserved their independence; and the Hungarians fought in 1956, and lost their independence. Diamond concludes with a searing question: who among us is to say which country was wiser, and who could have predicted in advance that only the Finns would win their gamble?

It’s this question that plagues Ben Zakai when facing Vespasian. As per Kissinger, he tries to recognise the “real relationship of forces” between Judea and Rome, and chooses to adapt his nation’s core values away from Temple worship. And while history generally judges him kindly, at the time – and on his death bed – he is beset with doubt. Because fateful national decisions, including Ben-Gurion’s in May 1948, are always gambles. But they must be taken anyway.

The Talmud suggests that a good political leader should always be anxious: constantly aware that things can (and often do) go wrong, and that even good decisions entail a painful price. But it also warns that if that awareness paralyses them, (if in Talmudic parlance they “harden their heart”) then both they and the nation they represent will fall into misfortune.

A lesson worth remembering as we mark the destruction of the temple, and the Jewish people’s exile from their land.

  • Calev Ben-Dor is director of research at BICOM, an independent British research centre producing analysis on Israel and the Middle East. Ben-Dor has worked as an analyst in the Reut Institute, as well as in the policy planning department of Israel’s foreign ministry.

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