It was Tisha B’Av. Jerusalem and the Temple had fallen, but there was new hope. A warrior by the name of Bar Kochba arose and took the world by storm. He assembled 400,000 Jewish soldiers in Israel. Only the strongest and mightiest qualified for the Jewish army.
The Talmud recounts that Bar Kochba instituted a test of strength. In order to qualify for battle every potential soldier had to cut off one of his fingers with his sword. Two-hundred-thousand men stood up to fight with their sign of commitment, a missing finger. The Rabbis discouraged this system. They wrote a petition to Bar Kochba saying that he was making all of Israel crippled (JT Taanis 4;5).
In response to the Rabbinic request, Bar Kochba instituted a new test, where a soldier was required to rip a cedar tree out of the ground while riding on a horse. Two-hundred-thousand more soldiers stepped up to this test. Under the military leadership of Bar Kochba, and the approval of Rabbi Akiva, the Jews conquered 50 fortified cities and 951 smaller towns. The Jews created an independent government and began to restore Jewish life to Jerusalem and Israel. Fifty-three years after the destruction of Jerusalem, we became one of the strongest armies in the known world. The Romans were defenseless against us, their decrees against the practice of Torah and mitzvot (commandments) were overturned and a powerful Israel was created.
Rabbi Akiva declared Bar Kochba the Moshiach, the Messiah.
But somehow everything started to turn around. In the year 135 the Romans brought in their best general, Julius Severus, and we started to lose ground and people. The Talmud describes a battle in which two rivers were filled up with Jewish blood: two thirds blood and one third water (Gittin 57). The mood of Israel fell, and for two and a half years we spiraled downward. Our last stronghold was Beitar.
Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel described Beitar as a city with 500 Jewish schools, the smallest of which had 500 children. G-d just couldn’t let us down!
In the year 138 we lost Beitar as well and found ourselves in the galut, exile, we are in today. It was Tisha B’Av all over again. Hadrian reenacted decrees on the Jewish people that were even harsher than the first decrees. Most of the ten martyrs were killed during this period. The Rabbis began to institute rules of mourning. We must not build homes or plant vineyards, they said, we must not play music or sing songs. It was prohibited to smile or certainly to laugh. Rabbi Yishmael Ben Alisha said, “We can no longer marry and we can no longer have children.”
It was the 15th of Av when the great Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: “Stop! If we continue to mourn we will destroy whatever little bit we have left. Build houses, get married and build your families. For a few years our strength was in our army–now our strength must be in our hearts.”
It was on that Tu B’Av that we found a new inner strength and that we learned how to go on. We were a crippled people, yet we started to marry and where possible we built homes and planted new fields (Bava Basra 62).
Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel taught: “There has never been a greater yom tov (holiday) for the Jewish people than the fifteenth of Av… “(Taanis 26).
There are two kinds of gevurah, two kinds of strength. There is the strength of arms and the strength of soul. When we experience our might we can walk proud and happy. When we are defeated we find a strength even greater that the first–the strength to survive. It is that strength that has given us the longevity to last until today.
Rabbi Yaacov Haber is the Spiritual Leader of Congregation Bais Torah in Monsey, NY and the President TorahLab.