Judaism: 9th of Av: 5774
For four years, Jerusalem had been under full Jewish control and sovereignty, the Roman army held at bay by Jewish forces – primarily the Kanna’im (the Zealots), commanded by Yochanan ben Levi from Gush Halav (the last town in the Galilee to hold out against the Romans), Shimon bar Giora, and Elazar ben Shimon (not to be confused with the Tanna Elazar bar Shimon, the son of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai).
All three of these Jewish leaders had already achieved impressive local victories against the Roman legions in different sectors in Israel, and all had proven themselves worthy and inspiring and able leaders. But tragically, they all vied for leadership in besieged Jerusalem, each of them demanding ultimate command of the Jewish forces.
It was this lack of unified leadership, arguably more than any other single factor that led the Jewish forces into defeat, destruction, and disaster for the generations.
Against them, surrounding and besieging Jerusalem, were four Roman legions – the Fifth, Twelfth, and Fifteenth to the west, and the Tenth on the Mount of Olives to the east. These legions were commanded by Titus, who nine years later would become Emperor of Rome, and his lieutenant, the renegade Jew Tiberius Julius Alexander.
This standoff had lasted for four years, and Titus was determined to break the stalemate and conquer Jerusalem.
Titus employed a stratagem that was quite likely suggested by a Jewish traitor: he allowed Jewish pilgrims to enter Jerusalem unhindered to celebrate Pesach and bring their Paschal sacrifices, and then sealed the exits. The overcrowding was untenable, the city’s infrastructure was unable to cater to such a swollen population, and food and water supplies were rapidly depleted.
Titus then sent another renegade Jew and Roman sycophant, the historian Josephus Flavius, to negotiate a truce with the Jewish commanders. They rebuffed him in short order, shooting him with an arrow and wounding him (which may well be the reason that Josephus’ account of the war is so viciously biased against the Jewish defenders).
The Roman forces subsequently began closing in on Jerusalem, breaching the recently-built Third (outer) Wall about five weeks after Pesach, and the Second Wall a week later. They then attacked the First (innermost) Wall and the Antonia Fortress (on the north-west corner of the Temple Mount), and were repulsed by the Jewish defenders who successfully defended the heart of Jerusalem.
(Intriguingly, historical accounts suggest that this successful defence of Jerusalem occurred on 28th Iyyar, the same date that Israel would liberate Jerusalem from Jordanian occupation in the Six Day War.)
Titus regrouped his legions, built a siege wall, and launched a renewed attack some seven weeks later, breaching the First Wall and capturing the Antonia Fortress on the 17th of Tammuz.
And after three weeks of vicious, bloody fighting and desperate and heroic defence by Jewish forces, Titus’ Roman legions captured the rest of Jerusalem and destroyed the Holy Temple on the 9th of Av.
The Talmud quotes Rabbi Yochanan: “Woe unto the nations, who have lost something and do not even know what they have lost! When the Holy Temple stood, its Altar would atone for them – and now, what will atone for them?!” (Succah 55b).
Or, in the words of the Midrash, “Just as the dove [of the chattat, the sin-offering] atones for sins, so Israel atone for the nations; because all those 70 bulls which they sacrifice on Succot correspond to the 70 nations, that the world not be devastated because of them , of which it is said ‘In return for my love they hate me, but I am all prayer’ (Psalms 109:4)” (Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah 1 :2).
And as another Midrash expresses it, “Israel said to the idolatrous nations of the world: G-d gives you all these benefits for our sake – yet you hate us! ‘In return for my love they hate me’. I sacrifice 70 bulls on Succot for the nations, and I pray for them that the rains fall, and ‘in return for my love they hate me’” (Midrash Shocher Tov, Psalms 109).
Indeed, it is often said that if the Romans knew how much benefit thy derived from the Holy Temple, they would never have destroyed it. If the nations of the world would have known how the Holy Temple atoned for their sins, they would have sent their armies there to defend it from the Romans!
And how little the world has changed since that calamitous day 1,944 years ago!
Today the world stands in the impending shadow of Islamic terrorism. Europe – the inheritor of Rome – teeters on the edge of an Islamic abyss, closer to being overwhelmed by Islamic forces than any time since the Siege of Vienna in 1529. Terrorism, crime, attacks on their culture, and physical attacks on their citizenry are increasing exponentially – and Israel is the single most powerful bulwark against Islamic victory over Europe.
A few – all too few – Europeans recognize this simple fact. The overwhelming majority are overtly hostile to Israel. Let there be no mistake: whether indigenous Europeans or Moslems, they do not hate Jews because of Israel. To the contrary, they hate Israel because it is Jewish. After all, they hated Jews long before there was an Israel to provide the rationale.
G-d’s Name is sanctified when we, alone, without human allies, defeat our enemies.
A time there was, when the Holy Temple stood, that we would sacrifice 70 bulls every Succot for the benefit of the 70 nations. The reason for sacrificing them, of course, was that the Torah commanded it; that the other nations benefitted was an incidental by-product. That was why we sacrificed these bulls regardless of the nations’ hatred for us.
Today we stand against the Islamic attempt to exterminate us, both nationally in Israel and individually in al the countries of our exile. The reason is our own survival; that the other nations benefit is an incidental by-product. That is why we continue to fight regardless of the nations’ hatred for us.
But if the other nation understood – they would send their legions to protect Israel and Jews wherever they may be.
Having said that, we neither need nor want other nations to fight for us, to protect us. A free nation stands up for itself, fights for itself, protects itself. Even more so Israel, G-d’s nation. Our wars are G-d’s wars, our weakness and defeats desecrate G-d’s Name and our strength and victories sanctify G-d’s Name. G-d’s Name is sanctified when we, alone, without human allies, defeat our enemies.
Titus may have understood this. More than a century and a half after his victory over the Jews, the Greek sophist Lucius Flavius Philostratus wrote the Life of Apollonius of Tyana, a probably fictional work though based on true events. Philostratus claimed that Titus refused to accept a wreath of victory (as was customary when Roman generals would win battles), explaining that there was “no merit in vanquishing people forsaken by their own G-d”.
Had the other nations indeed understood their stake in our Holy Temple, and had they sent their legions to protect it, and had they defeated the Romans, then though the Holy Temple would have survived, and though it would have been evidence that the nations believed in Hashem, G-d of Israel, and His power over the world, it would still have been a testament to Israel’s weakness, a testament that G-d did not grant His nation the power to defend themselves, and that He instead granted this strength to other nations to ensure Israel’s very survival.
So maybe it is just as well that today, the other nations do not understand – or obstreperously refuse to understand – their stake in Israel’s fight against her enemies. If they did, and if they consequently send their armies to fight for us, then our victories would become equally hollow and meaningless. Better, far better, for G-d’s nation to do the work for itself.
As King David expressed it, “All the nations surround me – in the Name of Hashem I cut them down! They surrounded me, they surround me – in the Name of Hashem I cut them down! They surrounded me like bees, were extinguished like a fire of thorns – in the Name of Hashem I cut them down!” (Psalms 118:10-12).
“In the Name of Hashem” – and solely in His Name!