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Tisha B’Av

By Rabbi Natasha Mann

The great question of the day is ‘eikhah’ – how? Today, as we commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples, along with the other calamities of Jewish history, we hear that word call out from the Book of Lamentations, and from the many generations that came before us. How? How could this have happened?  

The sages of the Talmud explored this question with many stories and ideas, all trying to understand how these destructions could have been allowed to occur. Probably the most famous and oft-quoted explanation of the destruction of the Temple is ‘sinat ḥinam’, ‘baseless (or unchecked) hatred’. The Talmud tells a story (Gittin 55b) of an unfortunate misunderstanding in which the wrong man was invited to a party thrown by his enemy. When the host discovered that the wrong man had arrived, he publicly humiliated the guest. In his anger, the guest then betrayed those he felt had wronged him, and convinced the Roman leadership that the Jewish community was readying itself to rebel. As a result, the Temple was destroyed. The lesson here is a heavy-handed one: do not let your hatred go unchecked; unbound hatred leads to destruction.  

Rabbi Yoḥanan gives a very different explanation for the destruction of the Temple. In Bava Metzia 30b, Rabbi Yoḥanan states: ‘Jerusalem was destroyed only because they gave judgments therein in accordance with the law of the Torah.’ Astounded, the anonymous voice of the Talmud questions whether this means that judgements should be given arbitrarily, and concludes that Rabbi Yoḥanan meant that the judges of that final Temple generation judged solely according to the letter of the law. This simple act of following the Torah without looking beyond the words on the page caused Jerusalem’s destruction. It was not rejection of Torah that lost us the Temple; instead, it was using the Torah as if the Torah is cold.  

The story of ‘sinat ḥinam’, the idea that the destruction of the Temple was founded on unbound hatred in Israel, demonstrates that when hatred goes unchecked, it is destructive. Rabbi Yoḥanan’s warning is a much more subtle, and much scarier, one. According to Rabbi Yoḥanan, destruction starts small. The seeds of destruction are sown when we apply law without also applying heart. Destruction begins with the refusal to use emotion alongside logic. Destruction begins where mercy ends.  

There are no simple answers to the question ‘how’ today. What we have instead is a long tradition of poetry, of observance, and of storytelling, that will hopefully allow us to remember the darker parts of our past in a way that will allow us to heal better tomorrow. This Tisha B’Av, as we fast and remember, I hope that we can all hear the lesson of Rabbi Yoḥanan that indifference can be just as dangerous as hatred.  

Rabbi Natasha Mann is a Masorti Rabbi serving New London Synagogue, Mosaic Masorti and Noam

Posted on 25 July 2019