כ׳ בתמוז ה׳תשע״ג (June 28, 2013)
“As the famine grew worse, the frenzy of the partisans increased with it … Nowhere was there corn to be seen, men broke into the houses and ransacked them. If they found some, they maltreated the occupants for saying there was none; if they did not, they suspected them of having hidden it more carefully and tortured them …”
This paragraph is a quote from the historian Josephus’ description of the Roman siege of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE. Titus, commander of the Fifteenth Legion, had surrounded Jerusalem and was waiting for their supplies to run out. To speed things up he even allowed pilgrims into Jerusalem for the festivals, but refused to let them leave. The Jewish groups who felt that the only response to Roman oppression was violent uprising were called the Zealots, or Biryonim, and they decided to move things along even faster. They scouted out the storehouses in Jerusalem, where huge supplies of wood and grain could have sustained the besieged citizens for many years – and burned them to the ground. In their eyes this was the only way to encourage the Jewish population to rise up and fight rather than negotiate a peace treaty.
As a result of this arson, Jerusalem became ravaged by famine. The Talmud relates the most horrific accounts of the tremendous suffering and death toll. A full account is given by Josephus, a Jewish historian who was at the siege, acting as translator and negotiator for Titus. He writes in detail how food was so scarce that families would hide in the darkest corners, secretly eating their last supply of grain before it was stolen from them at knifepoint by violent rebels: “Many secretly exchanged their possessions for one measure of corn-wheat if they happened to be rich, barley if they were poor. They shut themselves up in the darkest corners of their houses, where some through extreme hunger ate their grain as it was, others made bread, necessity and fear being their only guides. Nowhere was a table laid…”
Eventually the Roman troops were able to overpower the Zealots and stormed Jerusalem, torching buildings as they pillaged and murdered. Some historians believe that Titus intended to preserve the Beit Hamikdash (the Holy Temple) intact, and use it as a Roman Temple, but the fire quickly spread out of control and the heart of the Jewish world was burned to the ground. Men, women and children were slaughtered mercilessly and left in heaps on the ground. Some estimates are that as many as a million people were killed during the Great Revolt 66-70 CE.
We are now in the Three Weeks of mourning for the Beit Hamikdash, and for the lives that were lost defending Jewish sovereignty of Jerusalem. This week we read the first of three Haftarot, collectively known as the Tlat De’puranita – the Three of Punishment, excerpts from Jeremiah and Isaiah warning the Jewish people of what would befall them if they failed to repent. However, Shabbat is not a time to mourn, it is a time to rejoice, and so we try to focus on the last lines of the haftarah:zacharti lach chesed ne’urayich, G-d’s promise that despite all the pain and tribulations, G-d will eventually remember the “kindness” of the Jewish people, their faith in Him as they followed Him out of Egypt and across the desert, and bring us back to Him.
This week a fascinating discovery was announced by Eli Shukrun, director of excavations near the Western Wall. The Israel Antiquities Authority is excavating the drainage channel that runs from the Shiloah Pool in the City of David to Robinson’s Arch, at the southern end of the Western Wall. Inside a cistern in the drainage channel they unearthed three complete cooking pots and a small ceramic oil lamp left there 2,000 years ago. These are the first pieces of evidence of the Jewish famine as described by Josephus, of Jewish families hiding in the darkest places to eat their paltry amounts of food away from thieves and robbers.
The pictures of these hidden pots and the lamp are reproduced above, and they really bring to life the terror felt by those slowly starving to death under Roman siege, hiding from their own brethren for survival.
The Rabbis tell us that the destruction of the Second Temple was brought about by causeless hatred and enmity for one another, as exemplified by the story of Bar Kamtza, evicted from a party in the most humiliating circumstances. However, they also tell us that we can fix the situation by fixing our middot, our interpersonal relationships. So let us take time these three weeks to think about how we can treat each other better, how we can be kinder and more empathetic to those around us and how we can be more supportive to those less fortunate. If we do that hopefully we will merit to the fulfilment of G-d’s promise at the end of the haftarah, “zacharti lach chesed ne’urayich … I remember the kindness of your youth. Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Zalman Lent
Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and director of Chabad of Ireland.
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