Tishah Be’Av, the bleak 25 hour fast of mourning on which we recall the disasters of Jewish history, poses a central question: What must we learn from destruction?
I grew up in a world which remembered war. One of my teachers had been decorated for bravery in the Royal Navy; another suffered continued mental torment from his years as a prisoner of the Japanese. My parents spoke about hunger, bombings, flight for their lives.
The generations who lived through the wars remembered; they strove for no more war.
In 1919 The League of Nations was created “to promote international cooperation and to achieve peace and security.”
On 26 June, 1945, the United Nations Charter was signed in San Francisco:
We, The Peoples Of The United Nations, Determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind..
On 10 December 1948, in Paris, the United Nations adopted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaiming that
recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.
Too many leaders of our generation seem to have forgotten. National politics and international relations are increasingly characterized by self-interest, aggression, cunning, bigotry, folly and contempt for the lives of the weakest. Last night I heard Philip Pullman speak of an age of ‘mendacity, hypocrisy and stupidity’.
The rabbis of the Mishnah lived during the Roman persecutions, between the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE and the crushing of the Bar Kochba revolt in 135, both commemorated on Tishah Be’Av. They saw the war against Rome as leading only to self-destruction. The Talmud records that
There were sufficient supplies in Jerusalem to outlast a siege for 21 years. There were lawless gangsters there. The rabbis said to them: ‘Let’s go out and make peace’, but the former would not let them. They, in turn, said, ‘Let’s go and make war’. ‘It’s futile’, the rabbis responded’. The gangsters burnt down all the food stores and famine forced the people to fight. Talmud, Gitin 56a
The Talmud’s overall verdict: ‘Needless hatred destroyed Jerusalem’.
Similar needless hatred could destroy the entire world today. That is why it is essential to learn from destruction.
What does it teach? Sadly, probably not that war is always wrong. There is a point when tyranny must be resisted, lest it swallow us all up. War remains a last resort.
We learn that we must try our utmost to live by the creative arts of peace and understanding. We learn that wanton aggression, boastfulness, vulgarity, cruelty, exploitation, injustice and contempt for life are evil, and exact a terrible price not just from their victims but, through the slow yet inevitable processes of time, on their perpetrators as well.
Above all, we learn to cherish life, all life, and the gifts of understanding, healing and creativity which lie within us all.