"Tracing the Roots of Destruction"

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



Tracing the Roots of Destruction

Based on a sicha by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Translated by Kaeren Fish


The nations of the world generally establish special days to commemorate victories and successes, while preferring to forget defeat and failures. Knesset Yisrael is different: we do not have a selective memory; our tradition imbues our consciousness not only with celebration of glory, but also with commemoration of periods of destruction.

Remembrance of the past, with its good and its bad, is part of our essence and our existence. There is a certain value to such remembrance in itself: it involves connecting with the past, contemplating the complexity of our existence, and perceiving the continuum of past and present (and thereby also the continuum of present and future). Historical awareness is stamped deeply in the soul and heart of Knesset Yisrael.

However – as emphasized by the Rambam - the fast days, when we focus on our tribulations, exist also in order to open the door towards the future:

"This (i.e. observing days of fasting and prayer) is one of the roads to repentance, for as the community cries out and sounds an alarm when overtaken by trouble, everyone is bound to realize that evil has come upon them as a consequence of their own evil deeds ... and this [repentance] will cause the trouble to be removed." (Hilkhot Ta'aniyot 1:2)

Today, on the Tenth of Tevet, we commemorate two events which appear to represent two opposite chronological poles. On the one hand, we commemorate the calamity of the siege of Jerusalem during the time of the Temple. However, on this day we also recite Kaddish for all those whose date of death is unknown, and therefore this day was designated to commemorate the most recent and greatest calamity that has befallen us – the Holocaust.

Of all the fasts that appear in Tanakh, that of the Tenth of Tevet is, in terms of our consciousness of the destruction, the weakest. When we think of the Ninth of Av, we envision of the Temple in flames; the Fast of Gedalia was "the extinguishing of the ember of Israelite sovereignty;" the Seventeenth of Tammuz commemorates five calamities, and the breach of Jerusalem's walls and the enemy's entry is certainly enough to make us sense the imminent destruction. But all that happened on the Tenth of Tevet was that the King of Babylonia laid siege to Jerusalem. For some time, life continued more or less in its normal fashion, and the road leading from this event to the actual destruction was a long one. Thus, our sense of destruction on the Tenth of Tevet is almost imperceptible in comparison with the other fasts.

By contrast, the contemporary tragedy of the Holocaust – not only because it took place so recently but also because of its terrible scope – is the most painful experience in all of Israel's history.

Furthermore, from a certain perspective, the phenomenon of the Holocaust seems so unique that it cannot be compared to anything else; it cannot provide us with any lesson to be learned – even in the long term. Any attempt to draw conclusions from the Holocaust is problematic. Nevertheless, it is inconceivable that a person should simply stand dumbstruck in the face of such an event and not sense that something here demands to be perceived and learned.

I would like to point out one aspect common to both calamities of Asara Be-Tevet.

Why do we mark the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem and not just the breaching of the walls or the destruction of the Temple? The message of this commemoration is that after the destruction, we must trace its sources and mark its stages; we must look backwards to events that are not earth-shattering and perceive how the seeds of the destruction on the Ninth of Av were planted on the Tenth of Tevet. The more we study history, the more we learn that we should not concentrate only on the final act, the cataclysmic event itself, but also on all the stages that led up to it.

The moral message that arises from this is the importance of sharpening our consciousness of the unfolding of the past, seeing how the branches sprout forth from the roots.

This has great significance with relation to the Holocaust – not so much the Holocaust itself but rather its roots: how did such a phenomenon ever come to be? There are historians who give up in the face of this question, for the contrast between the culture of the German nation and its actions defies understanding. Historical rules, causality and morality come undone at the enormity of it. But at least with hindsight, we have to look back at what came before, what the roots of the Holocaust were, and what moral lessons may be learned from them.

William Shirer, in his "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," tried to get to the roots of the Holocaust. There certainly were roots, but they were impossible to discern at the time of the events. Looking back now, we may point out the music of Wagner, Bismarck's hunger for power, the philosophy of Nietzsche – but none of this would have been discernible at the time. I don't know if we can make any claim today against someone who listened, at the time, to Wagner's music or who was impressed by Nietzsche.

But the lesson of the Holocaust is that we now know that it is possible. Prior to the Holocaust, no constellation would have seemed to lead towards it. The roots were not discerned simply because no one had any idea that such a tree existed. But we, the generations after the Holocaust – we know that there is such a possibility, and that we must look out for the smallest sign of its buds. We need to sharpen our consciousness of the connection between siege and destruction - not necessarily out of fear of a second destruction, but rather because if that is what grows from certain buds, then how terrible are those buds themselves!

Let us take a halakhic analogy. In the opinion of R. Yochanan: "A half of a forbidden amount ('chatzi shiur') is also forbidden by the Torah." Some of the commentators explain that this is because "chazi le-itztarufei," it can accumulate with another "half-measure" to constitute the full amount of a prohibition. According to this, if there is no possibility of its being added to another half-measure of the forbidden substance, then no biblical prohibition is involved. Such is the position of the Sha'agat-Aryeh, who contends that someone who eats a half of a "kotevet" of food right before the end of Yom Kippur does not transgress a biblical prohibition. But I learned from my rebbe, Rav Shmuel Shatzkes zt"l, that if the half-measure is fit to be added to a full measure, then the half-measure itself is abhorrent and forbidden.

We hope and pray that the Holocaust was a one-time historical event. But even if so, we need to understand that if German culture was "chazi le-itztarufei," if it made such a horror possible, then how deep was the rot in that culture!

This, then, is the common theme of both events commemorated on Asara Be-Tevet: the sharpening of our consciousness of the stages along the way to destruction. We must heighten our ability to discern what we are looking at, and our sense of horror at what could come about; we must know what a sense of power and militarism can bring about, and what ignorance of the concept of man's "Divine image" can cause.

All this is true on the historical, national and communal levels. On fast days, the public dimension is undoubtedly given prominence. The Rambam, for example, emphasizes the idea of collective confession: "And they shall confess their sin and the sin of their fathers" (Vayikra 26:40). However, "awakening the hearts and opening the paths of repentance" applies not only on the communal level, but also to individuals. Each person must open his heart and repent; each heart must engage in its own remembrance. We must develop our awareness of the significance of processes, and not only of results and conclusions.

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik spoke of repentance from the PATH of sins, as opposed to repentance from a particular sin. This is the point that is unique to the Tenth of Tevet. Specifically that which does not seem so terrible, that which "we can live with" - THAT is what requires rectification on the Tenth of Tevet. The obligation of repentance on this day involves seeing prospectively that which may usually be seen only in retrospect.

I do not know whether, on the Tenth of Tevet, the tragedy of the Ninth of Av could have been avoided; not everything is in man's hands. But at the very least, there may have been a chance to avert the tragic conclusion. If not on the national level then at least on the personal level, each individual by means of his repentance on the "fast of the tenth month" can turn the "fast of the fourth month" and the "fast of the fifth month" into days of joy and celebration.


(Adapted from a sicha delivered on Asara Be-Tevet 5747 [1986].)


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