Judaism: Transforming National Tragedy into Personal Growth
Jews tend to remember. Jews are trained to remember, not because they turn their back on their future by focusing on their history, but because they treat their past as a fountain from which they draw meaning, a sense of identity and direction. Jews remember because they value their past, even when it includes failures, catastrophes and sadness. For Jews, the past somehow includes the ingredients necessary to forging their future.
A typical example of this past-future connection is represented by the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av (Tisha B’Av), the saddest day of the yearly calendar. It was legislated as a day of national mourning because of the numerous calamities that befell Jews on that day throughout our history. Less publicized is the fact that Tisha B’Av also has an intense personal dimension that is nested in its national or public character. This dual national-personal makeup originated with the Sages of the Talmud.
The sages sought to provide some rationale to explain the unprecedented catastrophes of the destruction of the Second Temple, the loss of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jewish people from the Land of Israel. They attributed these tragedies to the prevalence of baseless hatred in Israel (Talmud, Yoma 9, Arachin 15b). Baseless hatred pertains to the expression of hatred among Jews.
To illustrate their view of the causal link between hatred and exile, the sages “invite” us inside a private party that was ruined by a “failed invitation” incident. An unnamed man sent his messenger to invite his friend named Kamtza. The messenger erred and invited the host’s enemy, a man named Bar Kamtza. When Bar Kamtza was discovered by the host, the latter decided to expel him. Although Bar Kamtza beseeched the host not to eject him in public, the host’s hatred prevailed and he expelled Bar Kamtza.
The Talmud story reveals Bar Kamtza’s inner feelings and actions: he expected that the sages who were at the party and witnessed his humiliation would prevail on the host and save him. Since the Sages remained quiet, Bar Kamtza denounced all the Jews to the Roman emperor. This slander eventually led to destruction and exile.
Another illustration of the dual national-individual paradigm of Tisha B’Av pertains to the destruction of the Holy Temple. It helps to remember that the foundation of the Temple Mount was divided such that the eastern part of the Temple stood on the land belonging to the tribe of Judah while the western part belonged to the portion of Benjamin.
This arrangement was meant to emphasize the unity of the Jewish people by reminding all Jews of the commitment that Judah (Jacob’s fourth son) made to save the life of his brother Benjamin (Jacob’s youngest son). In doing so, Judah had originated the uniquely Jewish principle of mutual responsibility (arevut) that has since then become the cement at the core of Jewish peoplehood. When, in the year 70 CE, Jews lost sight of their responsibility toward each other, their unity was destroyed and the Temple no longer had a reason to exist.
But the sages went one step further by emphasizing that until baseless hatred disappears, the Temple cannot be rebuilt. In doing so, they laid out the inescapable personal dimension of Tisha B’Av for every Jew: the elimination baseless hatred in our immediate environment by developing an attitude of arevut, becoming responsible for our brothers and sisters.
What are the steps to this personal transformation?
The first is to work on prevention of new episodes of hatred and the second is to try to repair existing episodes. Knowing that hatred is easily triggered and not easily reversible, we should undertake a systematic review of our relationships most likely to produce hate triggers. These include individuals with whom we have emotional links: siblings, parents, in-laws, extended family members, neighbors, coworkers, and friends.
With respect to prevention, we should ask ourselves: (i) how insecure or competitive (or envious) am I with respect to specific family members or friends or coworkers? (ii) Am I overly sensitive? (iii) Does my self-esteem depend on others?
Answering these questions enables us to be prepared and respond wisely to any perceived “aggression”. Even if a new situation makes us feel “victimized” of an assault, then we should be ready take the initiative and speak to the “aggressor” in a respectful way to seek an immediate resolution.
With respect to repairing existing relationships that involve a disagreement, friction or arguments, we should ask ourselves:
Am I harboring a desire for revenge or retaliation? For any of these situations, the goal is to bring ourselves to forgiving and erasing the episode from our memory, knowing that hatred constitutes a trap imbedded in our inner brain.
Motivation to forgive can come from the realization that:
(i) hatred feels like a private emotional affair but it is not; every episode can have broad ramifications;
(ii) hatred achieves revenge not justice;
(iii) hatred damages you more than your victim; you become cruel, insensitive, relishing gossip;
(iv) you become prisoner of the person you hate, frustrated by your inability to obtain honor from a person that you despise;
(v) if you are rational, you should be able to forgive just out of selfishness; if you are not able to do so, you know that you are truly a “prisoner”.
In addition to the above, another proactive step is to use Rabbi Dessler’s principle that “We tend to love those to whom we give”. Behaving in a generous fashion can help you transition into a caring relationship. This type of emotional shift requires inner work, but it is both achievable and rewarding.
Those who commit to self-improvement on Tisha B’Av, will find that, comes the next month of Elul and Tishri, they are more than ready to step into the Days of Awe.