Monday, November 28, 2011

Rabban Yochanan and Self-Delusion

In the second part of the fourth chapter, we have a collection of stories about Vespasian and the Roman armies, from the beginning of the siege until they finally captured Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. As a illustration of the importance of gemilut hasadim, gifts of loving-kindness, Avot d’Rabbi Natan brings a well-known story in which, after Beit HaMikdash was destroyed, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was walking with Rabbi Yehoshua. Rabbi Yehoshua said, “Alas, that this place where Israel atoned for its sins has been destroyed!” Rabban Yochanan replied, “My son, don’t worry—we have another form of atonement that is just as good. And what is it? Gifts of loving-kindness,” using the prooftext “chesed hafazti ve’lo zavach,” “I desire loving-kindness and not sacrifices.”

In the next story, we learn that, before the destruction of Jerusalem, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was an advocate for submission to the Romans. He urged the people to follow Vespasian’s suggestion that they surrender rather than waiting for him to destroy the city, and, when Vespasian offered him a favor, he asked only that he be allowed to set up a house of study in the nearby town of Yavneh.

From the combination of those two stories, we might have thought about Rabban Yochanan as a very modern Jew who does not need the Temple cult to feel confident that he will be able to atone for his sins. Of the three pillars of the world, he privileged the two that we are most comfortable with—study  and loving-kindness—over sacrifices. We might even expect him to be glad that the temple had been destroyed because it would force people to focus on the important parts of Judaism.

Rabban Yochanan may have actually felt those things, but not as simply as that. In the next story, we learn his reaction when the Temple was destroyed. He sat and trembled, and, when he heard that the Temple had been burnt, he tore his clothes as a mourner does. His students also tore their clothes, and they wept and cried and gave eulogies. They told the story of the High Priests who were in the Temple when it was destroyed, who took their keys and threw them up to God, saying “Master of the Universe! Take back these keys that you gave to us, since we are not trustworthy guardians to do the will of the King and eat from His table. Now take back these keys!” and jumped into the flames.

Rabban Yochanan’s complex reaction could illustrate a few different ideas. One is that, sometimes, the best option is not good. This reminds me of what a speaker we heard this summer in Israel said about the Israeli settlements: he said that he believes they eventually will need to be destroyed and given back, but we should acknowledge that that is not a good situation. On the day the settlements are destroyed, he said, he plans to mourn, but also help the settlers move out of their homes.

Another option is that he really does wish that we could keep the Temple, but acknowledges that it is not what is happening now. With this reading, he really agrees with Rabbi Yehoshua in the first story that the destruction of Jerusalem is a tragedy, but since he knows that God did it on purpose, he can be sure that God now desires loving-kindness and not sacrifices. If he had wanted sacrifices, he would not have let the temple be destroyed. And in the second story, it is not that he wants the people to surrender, but only that he knows that the Romans will inevitably capture Jerusalem. He is like Jeremiah walking around with his iron yoke—he doesn’t want Jerusalem to be captured; he’s just advocating realism. If it’s going to happen, let’s be as mentally prepared as possible.  This reading seems to explain the story about the priests slightly better: he includes them in his eulogy as an example of people who, knowing they have failed, acknowledge their failure and give up. 

With either reading, for Rabban Yochanan, one of the worst things is self-delusion. Which of these two bad options is worse? If we have chosen something, are we pretending that it is better than it is to satisfy ourselves?  What have we successfully have done? What is still possible? What cannot be done? Often, there are answers to those questions that are easier to face than the true ones. Rabban Yochanan demands that, even in the worst situations, we force ourselves to answer those questions truthfully.

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