Mourning in Moderation

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31 Jul 2019

One of the most poignant passages about the pain of the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash might also seem bizarre. Especially today, when we are so far removed from the Beit Hamikdash that we struggle to feel any sense of pain over its loss, it is hard to comprehend the intense spontaneous reaction the Gemara describes (Bava Basra 60b):

When the Temple was destroyed a second time, there was an increase among the Jews of ascetics who would not eat meat or drink wine.

Rabbi Yehoshua joined them. He said to them, “My children, why do you not eat meat or drink wine?”

They said to him, “Shall we eat meat, of which we would bring on the altar – when now [sacrifices are] cancelled? Shall we drink wine, that was poured on the alter and now [libations are] cancelled?”

He said to them, “If so, we won’t eat bread, since grain offerings are cancelled.”

[They responded] “It’s possible [to live with just] fruit.”

“We won’t eat fruit, because the [bringing of] first fruits has been cancelled.”

“It’s possible with other fruits [whose first fruits were not brought].”

“We won’t drink water, because the water libation has been cancelled.”

They were silent.

On one hand, this passage is highly evocative, showing us how deeply many people felt the loss. They couldn’t imagine continuing to partake of any substance that had once served such a holy purpose; it would only serve as a painful reminder of how far they had fallen. We read it and see their grief as beautiful and good; we long to feel it too, to retain that sense of connection to God and holiness in our eternal communal consciousness. Hearing it from their mouths, seeing what they were willing and even eager to give up in their pain, offers us a path through which we can relate to that sense of loss and perhaps imagine it in ourselves.

On the other hand, it seems a little ridiculous. Did they really plan to go without meat or wine forever? Without bread? Without fruit? What about the mitzvot that did still apply and required those substances, such as kiddush? How long did they think that lifestyle could go on before their bodies – or perhaps their children or children’s children – would begin to chafe at it and rebel? Would we really, still today, entertain abstaining from meat and wine – and maybe bread and fruit – because of a two-thousand-year-old loss? (Perhaps they would never have imagined the loss would last this long, but still.)

On the third hand (yes, I said it), perhaps there is a different message here. This passage is not just about how valid or how ridiculous their resolutions might have been, but about the process by which they came to realize that their resolutions were both valid and ridiculous – and the process by which they came to terms with those conflicting truths and found a genuine, valid, non-ridiculous balance.

One can only imagine how crestfallen these ascetics must have been when Rabbi Yehoshua pointed out that their expressions of mourning would have to have a limit. They were silent. They, who felt the pain of the destruction so acutely, suddenly realized they would have to suffer the additional pain of drinking water, reminding them of their grief and eventually – even worse – perhaps causing them to forget their grief, making them complacently forget the days when water was used for such a holy purpose.

How did Rabbi Yehoshua help them move forward from that point of dejected silence?

My children, come and I will say to you: Not to mourn at all is impossible, for the decree was decreed [i.e. the Temple was destroyed]; and to mourn too much is impossible, for we don’t make a decree on the community unless most of the community is able to uphold it…

Rabbi Yehoshua gently guides the people to realize that neither extreme is tenable. He doesn’t dismiss their perspective as ridiculous; after all, though they took it to an extreme, its roots were solid. The decree was decreed; they had to do something to mourn. That was a truth. (As Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha says further on in the Gemara, it is indeed “din” – right, just – that we should abstain from meat and wine.) At the same time, however, though the principle behind their approach was solid, it also conflicted with other values – such as living. “We don’t make a decree on the community unless the majority can withstand it.” A real live community has multiple needs, multiple truths that must be factored into any sustainable course of action.

Rabbi Yehoshua doesn’t take their position to its logical extreme to show their entire approach was wrong, but to demonstrate that the practical application of that approach required more nuance. Taking it too far would be absurd, impossible – but that didn’t mean they weren’t right.

How, then, to find that nuance and honor the principles at both ends?

Rather, thus said the Sages: A person plasters his house with plaster, and leaves a small bit [unplastered]. How much? Rav Yosef said, a square cubit. Rav Chisda said, opposite the entrance.

We must mourn our Beit Hamikdash until it is finally rebuilt, and we also must live and even enjoy our lives in the meantime. It might be easier to simply allow ourselves to give way to either sadness or joy – one or the other – but that doesn’t mean it’s right. Both sides are positive and true; our grief for Yerushalayim of old can and must coexist with the joys of our current lives (Tehillim 137:5-7). Finding the right balance is a challenge, whether in designing our homes or, as the Gemara continues, planning our menus or heading for the spa: How big should our unplastered section be, and where? Which foods can we reasonably leave off our plates? It’s a challenge, but simply ignoring either side out of concern for the other is not an option – and so we find our balance with the guidance and wisdom of our Sages, who also struggled to pin it down but knew the struggle was worth it.

And so we come to the broader message.

As we learn from this Gemara of the grief felt by the Jewish people at the time of the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, and as we try to imagine ourselves in their pain in order to better connect with this 2000-year-old event, we can also learn something else. We can look to Rabbi Yehoshua’s process of communication with the ascetics – how he “joined” them and heard them and never challenged the fundamental principle that drove them, because that principle was right.

Taking a principle too far doesn’t necessarily mean the principle itself is wrong. Often, we agree more than we think we do on fundamental principles; often, our disagreements are more about the relative weight given to different values, or the practical expressions of those values, than about the values themselves.

So when we perceive a problem in the way a particular individual or group is applying a particular principle – when we perceive an extreme focus on one principle to the detriment of other values – it is often both more honest and more effective to join with that individual or group where we agree, and from there show them where they might agree with us too.

We might then be better able to work together towards finding a more tenable balance between all those truths.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.