An extraordinary statement in the Talmud offers us a glimpse into the frame of mind of the Sages immediately following the destruction of the Temple, the murder of hundreds of thousands Jews, and the complete breakdown of Jewish life in the ancient land of Israel:
By right, we [the sages] should really decree upon ourselves to refrain from marrying and bringing children into the world, thus passively allowing for the seed of Avraham to disappear. (Baba Batra 60b).
Nothing can better describe the total despair of the rabbis than these very words. Once they realized that the remaining small remnant of the people of Israel was exiled and forced to live in violent anti-Semitic societies, they concluded that there was no longer any hope for a better future. So why continue to suffer, if fading into oblivion could be their salvation?
Still, relates the Talmud, against their initial instincts, the Sages did not issue such a decree. They realized that the Jews of those days would not give in to that state of mind. Instead, they would oppose their leaders’ arguments and decide to rebuild Jewish life wherever possible and whatever the circumstances. And, indeed, so it was! The ordinary Jew did not subscribe to the rabbis’ despair. In this they showed unprecedented courage. With no country, army or finances, and surrounded by millions whose hatred towards Jews was well known, these people found the strength to marry and raise families. Despite the total collapse of Jewish life, they opted for the impossible. Yes, it was these ordinary Jews who decided not to listen to their leaders but to continue building the nation of Israel, as they had previously been taught by the very sages who now despaired. Sometimes, the simple man has more faith in the Jewish future than the greatest Talmudic scholar.
In a similar vein, the book of Yirmiyahu tells the story of Yerushalayim under heavy siege by the Babylonian army. Famine and plagues had already caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Yirmiyahu, known as “the prophet of doom,” was thrown into jail by King Tzidkiyahu after having predicted that the city would soon fall and the king himself would be captured (Yirmiyahu 32: 1-5).
To Yirmiyahu’s utter surprise, God appears to him in jail and reveals to him that his cousin Hanamel will come and offer to sell him his field in Anatot, near Yerushalayim. Soon after, Hanamel indeed appears making the offer, and Yirmiyahu, realizing that this is God’s will, buys the piece of land, signs a contract with his cousin and buries this document in the ground so as to preserve it. Thereafter, he announces: “For this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel says: “Houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in the land” (ibid, verse 15).
It is utterly astonishing that at that time, when Jews lived under disastrous conditions, one simple Jew approached Yirmiyahu—the very prophet who had persistently prophesied that a terrible calamity would befall the people of Israel—and dared to challenge him and suggest that he buy a piece of land in Israel! No doubt this field was surrounded by dead corpses and situated in a war zone that would not allow the new owner to even come and have a look for himself. Who would ever think of selling, let alone buying?
Indeed, it is not Yirmiyahu who is the hero of this story; it is his unknown cousin Hanamel. After all, Yirmiyahu was told by no less than God Himself to buy the land, how could he refuse? But Hanamel had heard no word of God telling him to sell. From where did he have the courage to even suggest such a transaction?
Absolutely nothing would stop Hanamel from continuing with his life, buying and selling, with the absolute knowledge that one day everything would fall into place and a beautiful Jewish life would be restored in the land of our forefathers. Today may be a disaster, but tomorrow will be full of joy. This is the unprecedented faith of Hanamel to which even the prophet of doom had to yield.
And so it is today. After the Holocaust, in which six million Jews died, and as the threat of violence in Israel and beyond continues to plague the Jewish people, young Jews, instead of falling victim to despair, are marrying and building new families, establishing careers, and learning Torah as never before. They are the Hanamels of today.
Sometimes, rabbis would do well to listen more closely to their flock. Sometimes, there is wisdom beyond the written word and all logic. Sometimes, the rabbis are drowning in too much knowledge, and the simple folk may be able to rescue them.
Questions to Ponder by the DCA Think Tank
1. Our sages suggest that certain world events that had repercussions on Jewish life were actually God’s way of shunting the Jewish People into a new stage of its history. Thus, at the time of the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel, “Sanharib the king of Ashur came and mixed up the nations … (Tosefta Kiddushin 5:4), effectively removing the Jewish People’s historical enemies so that they could battle a different enemy—the idolatry that they had thus far failed to overcome. Could the destruction of the Second Temple, and the exile that eventually followed, be seen as similarly furthering some Divine plan? If so, from the perspective of hindsight, what might have been the goals of that long exile?
2. If you could go back in time and console the rabbis who nearly despaired at the destruction of Jerusalem, what would you say to them?
3. Every year around this time we see articles in the Jewish media suggesting that we should no longer fast on Tisha b’Av: with Jerusalem rebuilt and the Ingathering of Exiles in full swing, why should we mourn a destruction that is barely any longer visible? Do you agree with this claim? If not, can you devise a persuasive counter-argument?
4. Martin Buber, in his book, The Prophetic Faith, argues that, in building the First Temple, Solomon was actually attempting to relegate God’s sovereignty to the cultic (i.e. priestly/Temple) sphere alone, freeing him, as king, from any responsibility to Divine Law. Religious ritual would be the work of the priests, with the common people free to live as they pleased; and the Temple would thus represent the ultimate “separation of church and state”. It was just this tendency toward “separation” that Jeremiah prophesied would lead to the destruction of the Temple: people tried to buy God off with sacrifices, rather than acting justly towards one another.
Does our generation too have this tendency of consigning God to the realm of ritual worship and absenting the divine from interpersonal relationships? And were the Temple to be rebuilt tomorrow, would we be able to avoid such a separation becoming more acute?
Would it help if we tried to envisage an alternative form of Temple worship to sacrifices, one less easily mistaken as something that can “buy off God” – and if so, what would might that worship look like?