The Gemara in Gittin 56b tells a story about R. Yochanan ben Zakkai, the leader of the Jewish people at the time of the destruction of the Temple, talking to the Roman general Vespasian who was laying siege to Jerusalem. After he impressed Vespasian with his wisdom, Vespasian offered to grant his requests (within reason). R. Yochanan made three requests, one of which was to provide doctors to heal R. Tzadok who had become very ill because he had been fasting and praying for 40 years that the Temple should not be destroyed.
Rav Moshe Tzvi Weinberg, mashpia of Congregation Beth Abraham in Bergenfield, in a 2011 shiur titled “Eicha 1:1—Joining Hashem in the Silence and the Secret of Chochma and Binah” (https://www.yutorah.org/sidebar/lecture.cfm/763380/rabbi-moshe-tzvi-weinberg/eichah-1-1-joining-hashem-in-the-silence-and-the-secret-of-chochma-and-binah-camp-mesorah-5771/), expounded on a comment of the Tiferet Shlomo that it is incredible that after witnessing the destruction of the Temple after 40 years of fasting and davening to prevent that destruction, that R. Tzadok was still able to be healed and live on. We would have expected R. Tzadok to be so despondent that he would rather have chosen death. R. Yochanan ben Zakkai should not have bothered to ask Vespasian for doctors to heal him because he would have thought it impossible that R. Tzadok would be healed. Yet both R. Tzadok and R. Yochanan realized that death was not the answer even when facing the Churban, which he had dedicated his life to preventing.
In Samuel II Chapter 12, King David reacts in a similarly perplexing manner. After David sinned with Batsheva she gave birth to a son who, as part of David’s punishment, was destined to die. The baby became sick and David pleaded with Hashem to save the child, fasted and did not sleep in a bed. David’s advisers tried to stop David from this behavior, but he refused to listen to them. When the child actually did die, the advisers did not want to tell David because they worried David’s extreme behavior would only get worse and he would do something terrible (Samuel II: 12, 18). However, David figured out on his own that the baby had died from the way the advisers were whispering, and in response he got up and resumed normal activities: washing himself, eating and sleeping in a bed. The advisers were confused by David’s behavior, so he explained, “While the baby was still alive I fasted and cried, for I thought, ‘Who knows?’ Perhaps Hashem will show me favor and the baby will live.” (12:22) But once the baby died, David said there was no longer a purpose to his behavior because it wouldn’t be accomplishing anything. He had only behaved that way because it had a constructive purpose. Just like R. Tzadok, King David did not consider complete despair as the appropriate response to the tragedy that he was davening so hard to prevent.
The attitude of these great men was that even after a horrific tragedy it is important to continue to live. This constructive, positive approach was continued by R. Yochanan’s student, R. Yehoshua. The Gemara in Bava Batra 60b tells the story of a group of people who stopped eating meat and drinking wine after the destruction of the Temple because meat and wine were offered as part of the Temple service. However, R. Yehoshua convinced them that if they followed their approach to its logical conclusion, they could never drink or eat anything because grain and water were also used in the Temple. R. Yehoshua told them that while it is normal to mourn because such a great calamity fell upon them, excessive mourning is also inappropriate and curling up to die is not a legitimate option. The Gemara goes on to discuss proper ways in which we should commemorate the tragedy of the destruction of the Temple. For example, leaving part of a wall in one’s home unplastered or putting ashes on the head of the groom at a wedding. However, we should still build homes and get married.
When calamity occurs, the correct response is not to shrivel up and die, but to continue to live. However, part of that “living” means dealing meaningfully with that tragedy. In addition to commemorating the tragedy, we also have to take constructive action. For David that meant that after the baby died, he and Batsheva had another child together, after they were properly married, who would grow up to be Shlomo Hamelech who would build the First Temple. For the Jewish people living after the destruction of the Temple it means increasing our religious devotion, which will hopefully make us worthy of the birth and then arrival of another descendant of David and Shlomo who will build the third and final Temple, Moshiach ben David.
By Sara Schapiro
Sara Schapiro is a rising sophomore at Stern College for Women and a resident of Bergenfield.