The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit
Responding to Catastrophe
By Rav Yitzchak Blau
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?"
said: "Can we eat meat which was sacrificed on the altar, or drink wine that was
used as a libation offering upon the altar?"
said: "If so, we should not eat bread, because the flour offerings have
said: "We will make do with fruit."
said: "We should not eat fruit which was brought as bikkurim."
said: "We will eat other fruits."
said:] "We should not drink water because the water libation has ceased." They were quiet.
said to them: "My children, come and I will tell you. Not to mourn at all is impossible and to
mourn too much is impossibleů"
Yishmael ben Elisha said: ůAnd 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 endů
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 pervasive sense of despair.
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 flows from an evaluation that this
life is not worth the pain it entails, and we cannot bring new children into
such a world. Rather than
renouncing certain experiences, this approach challenges the justification for
Meir Simcha Ha-kohen of Dvinsk (Meshekh Chokhma, Bereishit 9:6)
says that this common psychological response to calamity helps explain the
specific mitzvot God commands Noach after the deluge. God tells him to procreate and inhabit
the world, and He also prohibits 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 the
optimism inherent in the great potential of each generation. R. Meir Simcha notes that during the
Babylonian exile as well, Yirmiyahu (29:6) relayed the Divine command to have
children. Here, too, the tragedy had to be followed with a life-affirming
The Shoah represents the strongest example of this challenge in
recent memory. Survivors certainly
could be forgiven for feeling reluctant to add Jewish children to this world,
after they had personally witnessed the horrors of which humanity is
capable. At the same time, many
survivors took it upon themselves to repopulate the Jewish world. 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.