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Comments on Tanakh Talks 11/23/20: Why are we in this bad situation?

Donald Perlmutter

In this session, we explored the causes and consequences of human suffering both personal and collective. The lessons are universal and have real applications in our modern times. 

The Talmudic rabbis had much to say about this question as they were confronted with the tragedies of the destruction of the second temple, the murder of over a million Jews, and the dispersal of the surviving Jewish people from Israel. Why had such calamity befallen God’s “chosen people?" As Tevye from Fiddler asked: “Can’t you choose someone else for a change?” 

Who is to blame?

The Talmud answered the question by placing responsibility on the behavior of the Jewish people themselves. Rabbi Rava urged people to first examine their own actions. Rabbi Abaye said Jerusalem was destroyed because people desecrated the Shabbat, while Rabbi Abbahu explained that the destruction occurred because its citizens failed to recite the Shema. Finally, Rav Hamnuna claimed that Jerusalem was lost because school children were deprived of studying Torah. The Talmudic tractates clearly imply that because the Jewish people strayed from Torah, they were to blame and suffered the wrath of God. 

In the unlikely event that self-examination fails to reveal culpable behavior, Rabbi Rava urges us to consider human tragedies to be “afflictions of God’s love." Although the Orthodox communities subscribe to it, this has always been a difficult concept for Jews to accept. Most would rather proclaim: “Stuff happens” than ascribe it to God’s retribution or our own transgressions. 

In our discussion, the idea was proposed that the rabbis placed blame for these tragedies on the behavior of the Jews, and, in an effort to galvanize their fallen people, urged them to return to strict religious practice. In other words, the rabbis’ motive was to incite action in order to ensure the survival of the culture. The action they urged, however, was not an outward retaliation against the Roman oppressors, but an internal repair of their own behavior by turning to Torah.

A Positive Development out of Calamity

One of our senior group members educated us to the fascinating historical fact that during this era of extreme stress, the rabbis began to require Torah reading as a requirement for community inclusion. There was an early mandate to promote universal literacy throughout Jewish culture. We can speculate that out of tragedy was born a movement that resulted in the Jews becoming the “people of the book." From this, there has been a natural progression toward academics, the professions, and acceptance of urban culture.    

Can we change?

Our discussion turned to a more general exploration of responsibility for tragic outcomes and what might be done to avoid them. Some members reminded us that failure to learn from the past dooms us to repeat mistakes. Rabbi Edery added that “humans are the only animals that stumble twice on the same rock." We therefore must question our own closely held assumptions. In other words, “Change the plan” as opposed to denying the problem and persisting. This can be a challenge when we are heavily invested in the “plan” of the past. Fortunately, there will always be a new generation of fresh thinkers who have less investment in the old ways and who are willing (and often eager) to discard them and create a new plan. Literacy was suggested as a necessity in avoiding the mistakes of the past. After all, how can we learn from history if we can’t read and comprehend it?    

As it usually does, our discussion digressed into current affairs and the failure to apply these lessons of failed societies. The Roman Empire failed because of unquestioning trust in the leadership of tyrants. “When we honor what is not honorable, we lose." Through lack of education, denial of reality, or arrogance, we often fail to see the parallel in our current circumstances to historical events.  

Wed, July 17 2024 11 Tammuz 5784