While as a rule of thumb Shabbat is an oasis of rest and joy, this week is shadowed by the nearing presence of the fast of Tisha b’Av. Tisha b’Av is the darkest day of the Jewish year, commemorating the greatest tragedies of Jewish history, particularly the destruction of both the first and second Temples of Jerusalem. There is a fascinating debate in Jewish law as to how Shabbat and its characteristic joy, which generally repels any expression of mourning, interacts with the gloom of the season, but it is in any case certainly an appropriate time to focus on the lessons that we can rescue from the jaws of defeat.
The Talmud is fascinated by suggesting the forms of spiritual malaise that lay behind these historical tragedies in the hopes of being able to confront and rectify them as they continue to challenge us centuries later. In discussing the fall of the city of Beitar during the final rebellion against Rome (c. 132 CE), the Talmud (BT Gittin 57b) offers the following enigmatic assertion:
“Beitar was destroyed on account of a shaft from a carriage.”
The Talmud clarifies that a carriage bearing a Roman noblewoman broke down somewhere in the Judaean hills. Looking to repair the shaft, a member of her entourage chopped down a convenient cedar tree at the side of the road. Unfortunately, the Romans had no cultural context for the backstory of these cedars.
The Jews of the region of Beitar had a charming local custom. When a family was celebrating the birth of a child, the parents would mark the occasion by planting a tree, a cedar tree for a boy and a cypress for a girl. Years later, when the child would find their spouse, the chuppah for the wedding would be constructed by intertwining wood from the trees planted at the birth of the bride and the groom, and it was from one of these cedars that the hapless Roman attempted to repair his mistress’s carriage.
Enraged, the residents of Beitar attacked the Roman party, and the survivors escaped and interpreted this as an act of a rebellion against Rome, leading to a war that ended with the destruction of Beitar, a traumatic massive loss of human life and any hope of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel until the 20th century.
Clearly, any geopolitical event has multiple complex roots, but our sages use this particular incident as a reflection of how
the perennial pitfall of self-absorption has disastrous consequences.
1. Ignoring of others
The Romans, even after decades of occupation, failed to understand the Jews, or even have simple interest in their way of life. Given that reality, offense that could easily be avoided by a passing familiarity with the folkways of the local Jews was almost inevitable.
2. Projecting our narrative
The Polish Talmudic commentator Maharsha (R’ Shmuel Eidels 1555–1631) offers an intriguing insight into the violent reaction of the Jews. He suggests that given their own cultural assumption that the cedars represented Jewish baby boys, they saw this as a genocidal gesture on the part of the Romans. This assessment of the motivation of the Jews is tragically plausible, but reflects a series of assumptions about these Romans, who were acting in the moment from a place of ignorance rather than insult. In all rational probability, these Romans had no idea what the cedars meant to the residents of Beitar. And yet, the projection of an understandable narrative on the part of the Jews had about Roman wickedness, which certainly was born from centuries of abuse and conflict, created a misimpression that set off a chain of events that made this a tragically self-fulfilling prophecy.
3. Failure to communicate
Finally, all of this could have been avoidable had there been an ability to speak from a place of empathy and curiosity. Instead of contempt on the one hand and unnecessary assumption on the other, had the groundwork for reasonable communication already existed a regrettable incident did not have to deteriorate to historical tragedy.
For many years Jews have marked this period not only by customs of mourning, but by introspection about how we can better ourselves and pave the way to redemption, particularly in the realm of interpersonal relationships. It often feels like we live in an incredibly fractious time, whether in America, Israel or in the Jewish world, where yawning ideological and political chasms drive wedges in communities and families. By challenging ourselves with the lessons of the cedars of Beitar, we can learn to better understand the perspectives and sensitivities of others, check our instinct to superimpose our narrative to ascribe the darkest motives of others, and most importantly, work on strengthening those bonds of
communication to help us work through the most explosive moments of tension. PJC
Rabbi Daniel Yolkut is the rabbi of Congregation Poale Zedeck. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.