Once, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai went out from Jerusalem and Rabbi Yehoshua walked after him, and saw the ruined Temple.
Rabbi Yehoshua said, “Woe to us, that the place that atoned for Israel’s sins is destroyed!”
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai said to him, “My son, don’t despair. We have another way of atonement—acts of kindness, as it is written: ‘for I seek kindness and not sacrifice’.”
Avot deRabbi Natan, Chapter 4
Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai have two different responses to disaster. Rabbi Yehoshua despairs that there is no longer a Temple. How will we ever atone without the ritual of sacrifice? But Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai has a different approach. He reimagines a verse to change centuries of tradition. Even though it might not be possible to bring sacrifices without the Temple, we can still find connection to God through kind deeds.
The Israeli election results are disturbing. The prospect of an government minister who hung a picture of mass-murderer Baruch Goldstein on his wall, Baruch Goldstein who massacred 29 Palestinians while they prayed, challenges our beliefs and dreams. It challenges our hopes for peace, our hopes for a tolerant state with equality for all its inhabitants. And, as for Rabbi Yehoshua, there is an understandable urge to mourn.
The challenge is how to move beyond despair. How to not simply give up on our hopes for justice—and equally, not give up on a land that means so much to so many of us. As with Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, it will take creativity and bravery. We will need to be flexible, to be willing to change fixed notions of how we relate to Israel or how exactly to find peaceful solutions. Above all, we have to support work for tolerance, kindness, and justice—”for I seek kindness”.
Jessica Spencer is a Masorti student rabbi.