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Getting the Future Back on Track

Representative Jamie Raskin, who recently appeared at our synagogue in conversation with Representative Steve Israel, writes: “If we cannot get the past right, we will get the future all wrong.” (Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of American Democracy)

Ours is an oftentimes sad and tortured history. We sometimes struggle to get it right. This is because holidays are not the same as history. Holidays are about creating memory. They are about inculcating identity. History is about uncovering truth. It is about drawing lessons.

On Sunday, Jews will commemorate Tisha B’Av, the day our tradition sets aside to mark past tragedies, in particular the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and the Second by the Romans in 70 C.E. We look at these through the lenses of tradition.

Judaism suggests that not only were the temples destroyed on this day, but nearly every tragedy that ever happened to the Jewish people occurred on the ninth of Av. The spies returned from the land of Israel with a bad report on Tisha B’Av. The Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and then from Spain in 1492 on the ninth of Av. World War I started, and operations began at the Treblinka death camp, as well as deportations from the Warsaw ghetto, on Tisha B’Av.

Our tradition is decisive. History is less clear.

The tradition suggests the Babylonians leveled the temple. Historians continue to dig for the truth. Some suggest it was not really King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia but instead the Edomites who burned the temple to the ground. The tradition turns away from this debate and shifts the focus to why. The Book of Lamentations, the words we chant on this fast day, argues that it was all because of our sins. “Jerusalem has greatly sinned; therefore, she is become a mockery.” (Lamentations 1)

Likewise, the rabbis looked within to explain the destruction of the Second Temple. The Talmud tells a remarkable story. Here is the legend. A man had a friend named Kamza and an enemy called Bar Kamza. One time when he was throwing a party, his event planner sent the invite to Bar Kamza instead of Kamza. When Bar Kamza showed up at the party, the man was furious.

He told Bar Kamza to leave and even said to him, “I don’t want you here. You have been gossiping about me.” Bar Kamza was embarrassed about leaving, but not apparently about gossiping, and so offered to pay for the cost of the party. The man refused his generosity and threw him out. The other guests did not get involved in the dispute. Even the rabbis in attendance said nothing.

Bar Kamza left the party stewing in anger. So, he went straight to the Roman authorities and said, “The Jews are rebelling against you.” The emperor asked, “How can I be certain?” Bar Kamza responded, “Send them a calf to offer as a sacrifice and you will see that they will refuse it.” Meanwhile, Bar Kamza secretly rendered the animal unkosher.

The rabbis realized they were in a bind. If they offer the calf, they will please the Romans but dishonor their tradition. If they don’t offer the sacrifice, they will uphold their traditions, but anger the emperor. The majority argued to keep the peace. (Some argued to kill Bar Kamza! Too bad they did not say, “Maybe we should have gotten involved at the party.”) Rabbi Zechariah ben Abkulas persuaded them that the tradition must persevere and so they refused the emperor’s gift.

The Romans were so enraged that they destroyed the temple and leveled Jerusalem. (Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 55b-56a) All of this happened because of a mistaken invitation. One small, seemingly insignificant event spiraled out of control. Interpersonal failures can sometimes lead to tragic, and cataclysmic, consequences. They can spill over well beyond the initial people involved.

And this is a lesson that continues to find contemporary resonance. Beware of where baseless hatred can lead. “Lonely sits the city. Once great with people! She that was great among nations is become like a widow; the princess among states is become a thrall.” (Lamentations 1)

Traditions offer morals. They also neatly hue to preconceived ideologies.

Historical tragedies impel us to mourn, but they can also provide us with opportunities for self-examination. Do we heed this call?

What of history’s lessons?

If we only look at the past through the lenses of tradition and identity, if we only view the past through the morals and ideals we hold dear, how will we get the history right?

My bewilderment continues.

How will we get the future back on track?