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The lessons of destruction resonate louder than ever

by JTVC Staff

The order of the day: Don’t be right, be responsible. This obligation should apply to the leaders and the public across all the rival camps.

Meir Ben Shabbat


As we embark upon a week that in the Jewish tradition commemorates the pinnacle of the mourning period for the destruction of both the First and Second Temples, the State of Israel faces one of the greatest watersheds in its 75-year history.

This year, the overwhelming sense of desolation and gloom that comprise a natural part of these days of mourning has been compounded by profound concern over the severe crisis threatening our national resilience and our very existence as a cohesive society.

Perhaps the most famous historical legend associated with this period is the story of Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza. The story is set in the 1st century BCE, in the last days of ancient Jerusalem prior to its sacking by the Romans. Internal relations among the Jews in the city were extremely precarious, rife with dispute, bitter internecine rivalry and hatred. Baseless hatred. At the height of this period, these figures began back-stabbing and informing on one another to the Roman emperor. From there, the path to the eventual destruction was a short one.

Rivers of ink have been spilled on interpretations of this legend, and in presenting its underlying lessons for future generations. They are all relevant to the present day, too, and will probably find pride of place in numerous speeches and articles in the days ahead.

It is also advisable to turn our attention to the words of introduction that the Talmudic sage chooses as a prelude to the story. He begins by asking what message arises from the biblical verse “Happy is the man who is anxious always, but he who hardens his heart falls into misfortune” (Proverbs 28:14).

History is replete with disaster

He provides an answer in the form of the story of Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza. What’s the connection? Rashi, the greatest of our biblical commentators, explains: The man who is constantly anxious “takes care to act with foresight so that no misfortune shall befall him.”

History is replete with disasters that have seemingly come out of nowhere, upon people who never even considered that things could come to such a state. The conduct of such people has typically been guided by three assumptions.

The first one: We shouldn’t exaggerate the implications, it’s important “to take things in proportion.”

The second: We’re in control, we can apply the brakes in time.

The third assumption: We can repair the damage.

Truth be told, most of us conduct our lives based on these assumptions. It isn’t really possible to act otherwise. Having said that, the story here comes to warn us against overconfidence, and proposes that we maintain some doubt regarding our assumptions. We would do well to remember that seemingly small incidents can potentially lead to large disasters; events can “snowball,” and it is very easy to lose control. And no less important: It is not always possible to get a “second shot” at something, or to turn the clock back.

Had all the various players at the time of Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza kept these things in mind, then they might have been able to prevent the eventual destruction of the Temple and the ensuing exile.

The deep, broad rifts in Israeli society

In its 75th year of independence, the State of Israel faces one of the thorniest domestic challenges it has ever had to deal with. The rifts between the various sectors of society are extremely deep and broad. It has opened up wounds that refuse to heal, touching raw nerves and causing severe, seemingly irreparable damage.

The dispute has long crossed over from the political domain, and is now apparent in all walks of life. It has smashed the brittle shield that until now has always protected the Israel Defense Forces and the security services, the ultimate symbol of consensus and stronghold of non-partisan impartiality, threatening to crush what is left of the “People’s Army.” It is also eroding the health system—which perhaps still represents the broadest common denominator of all.

Public discourse lacks any sign of desire or readiness to listen to the other side. Each camp is hunkering down in its own trenches. Positive that it is right, it argues, demonstrates, and on the whole, mainly preaches to the converted.

The rhetoric is intensifying, the tone is growing more strident, and the worrying signs of hatred are all too apparent. Not because of a person’s actions or behavior, but only because of their opinions. This is the essence of baseless hatred.

Our enemies are rubbing their hands in glee

“Earthquake in the Israeli Army of Occupation’s air force”—that was the headline Lebanese news outlet Al Mayadeen gave to the worrying development of IAF pilots refusing to serve. Our enemies are gazing at us in wonder and rubbing their hands with glee. This crisis fills them with hope, as they see Israel torn apart by internal strife, and continuing to rip itself to pieces.

Just as was the case during the destruction of the Temple, today, too, it is difficult to find a consensus figure, somebody who can really bang on the pulpit and warn everybody of the potential ramifications of this current vector. Where are we headed?

If we insist on focusing our attention on the questions of who’s to blame and who’s right, we will not succeed in extricating ourselves from the quicksand. Instead of going out to prove that we’re right, now is the time to display responsibility: for the security and resilience of the state and to ensure that society remains intact. Above all we need to remove the IDF, the defense establishment and the health system from all disputes. The damage that these domains might incur could well be irreparable, or in the eternal words of King Solomon in Ecclesiastes (1:15) “A twisted thing that cannot be made straight.”

The representatives of the various camps must engage each other in a meaningful dialogue to reach agreement. Such a dialogue must be conducted based on recognition of the genuine concerns troubling each side, founded on trust and respect, and mainly out of a sense of responsibility. Beyond the need to reach agreement on any specific issue on the agenda, it would be advisable to regard these talks as a good opportunity to pave the way toward addressing the root causes of the conflict and the key questions of identity, vision and “rules of the game” during situations of discord.

It is probably safe to say that it won’t be possible to reach a formula upon which everybody agrees, but a formula with a broad and solid basis of consensus would be a sufficiently good achievement.

Just as is true of any family, when dealing with the state, too, a formal arrangement will never be able to replace those “soft” components that are essential to preserving a viable framework for living together: mutual respect, consideration for others, friendship and above all: a sense of responsibility. Only when we begin to walk down this path will we know that we have learned the historical lessons of the Temple’s destruction.

Image: Tisha B’Av at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City. Credit: Akiva Van Koningsveld.

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