Responding to Catastrophe

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Shiur #25b: Responding to Catastrophe

By Rav Yitzchak Blau

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Dedicated by Michal and Yeruchum Rosenberg, in honor of the birth of their son Yonatan Mordechai.

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When the Second Temple was destroyed, ascetics - who refused to eat meat or drink wine increased in Israel. R. Yehoshua joined with them. He said to them: "My children, why do you not eat meat or drink wine?" They said: "Can we eat meat which was sacrificed on the altar or drink wine that was used as a libation offering upon the altar." He said: "If so, we should not eat bread because the flour offerings have ceased." They said: "We will make do with fruit." He said: "We should not eat fruit which was brought as bikkurim." They said: "We will eat other fruits." {He said:} "We should not drink water because the water libation has ceased." They were quiet. He said to them: " My children, come and I will tell you. Not to mourn at all is impossible and to mourn too much is impossible…

And from the day that the evil kingdom started to expand, and they decreed upon us evil and difficult decrees, and they prevent us from fulfilling Torah and mitzvot, and they do not allow us to enter the shavua ha-ben (circumcision), and some say the yehoshua ha-ben (probably pidyon ha-ben), logic would demand that we refrain from marrying wives and having children and the descendents of Avraham would come to an end… (Bava Batra 60b)

The destruction of the Second Temple must have been a catastrophic event for the Jews of two thousand years ago. Jewish life was sufficiently centered round the Temple that the witnesses to its destruction surely wondered how Judaism would survive. In some ways, a second exile can cause even more despair than a first. Perhaps those experiencing this new exile would start to see failure and exile as the normal fate of the Jew. We can easily imagine a pervading sense of despair.

If we look at the two responses to the tragedy in the above Gemara, we note an important difference. The first group wanted to refrain from certain pleasures, such as meat and wine, because these pleasures reminded them of the Temple. Such a response does not suggest that Jewish life should cease altogether; it attempts to limit the joys experienced in that life. The second response expresses a much more fundamental despair. The decision to not raise a family follows from an evaluation that this life is not worth the pain, and we cannot bring new children into such a world. Rather than renouncing certain experiences, this approach challenges the justification for Jewish continuity.

R. Meir Simcha Ha-kohen from Dvinsk says (Meshekh Chokhma Bereishit 9:6) that this common psychological response to calamity helps explain the specific mitzvot Hashem commands Noach after the deluge. Hashem tells him to procreate and inhabit the world, and also states the prohibition against murder. Noach had seen a world grow so morally corrupt that a merciful God had decided to destroy it. He easily could have concluded that human life is not worth very much and there is no point in perpetuating such a race. The mitzvot that follow the flood come to reject this idea. The prohibition against murder affirms the worth of human life, while the command to bear offspring emphasizes an optimism in the great possibilities of each generation. R. Meir Simcha notes that during the Babylonian exile as well, Yirmiyahu (Yirmiyahu 29:6) relayed the Divine command to have children. Here too, the tragedy had to be followed with a life-affirming response.

The Shoah represents the strongest example of this challenge in recent memory. Survivors could certainly be forgiven for feeling a reluctance to add Jewish children to this world when they have personally witnessed the horrors of which humanity is capable. At the same time, many survivors took it upon themselves to repopulate the world of Jewry. I recall reading of a grandparent who was not satisfied until she had as many grandchildren as relatives she had lost to the Nazis. Such an approach reflects the heroic response to tragedy championed by R. Meir Simcha. At times of communal despair, we need to combat that despair with life-affirming acts, and nothing affirms the worth of life more than having children.