Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Revisiting Titus

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Last week we closed the office to give everyone on our staff a much-needed break. We apologize for the inconvenience to our readers. We have faith in your understanding and hope that you, too, will grant yourself a respite, and come back refreshed.

Never having been to Europe, when the opportunity to travel came my way this summer, I decided it was time to broaden my horizons with a visit there. After touring a number of famous sites, I found myself in Rome, at the Arch of Titus.

I stood there gazing at the carved images of captive Jews bearing aloft the menorah and other keilim of the beis hamikdosh that had been plundered by the Romans. Images flashed through my mind of the terrible scenes of suffering that, centuries ago, unfolded at that very spot.

Hundreds of thousands of brokenhearted Jews had been forced to march past jeering crowds in the Romans’ victory parade. These hapless souls were beaten and brutalized and turned into sport for the masses.

Standing at the Arch of Titus, you can almost hear echoes of their anguished sobs. You can feel the hopelessness that filled Jewish hearts over the catastrophe of the churban bayis, and the torture and subjugation and humiliation of the Jewish people at the hands of their enemies.

After crushing Eretz Yisroel and sacking Yerushalayim, Titus went on to become the emperor of Rome, which was then at the pinnacle of its power. He presided over an empire that ruled the entire civilized world.

The Arch of Titus is a powerful symbol of the ascendancy of savage enemies of the Jewish people and of a bitter golus that has stretched on for millennia. Seeing it up close, how can one not feel shaken?

Yet this ancient artifact also stands witness to another lesson of history: When Hashem had no more need of the ruthless Titus, He cut him down in his prime.

The all-powerful Titus who had statues and monuments erected to deify himself, died soon after crushing Eretz Yisroel and sacking Yerushalayim. He was felled by illness, like any common mortal. His vaunted military prowess and unparalleled might were impotent against the Divine will.

On the other hand, the defeated Jews that he and his henchmen hunted down, murdered in the millions, and drove into exile, are still very much alive. The Roman Empire and Titus are mere artifacts of history, while the Jewish people continues to flourish, loyal to our heritage, awaiting redemption and the return of our Holy Temple.
In Yerushalayim, where, in the days of Titus, no Jew could be found alive, Jews today walk freely. In the land where it was once inconceivable that the Jewish nation would experience resurgence, millions of Jews celebrate their traditions and beliefs.

The ‘Advanced’ Society That Was Rome

As one visits Rome’s tourist sites, the encounter with history reveals some of the most inhumane aspects of that ancient society—regarded in its day as the most “advanced.” Parts of the city today are like a giant outdoor museum, featuring relics of the ancient past. Tour guides show you the great Roman coliseum where gladiators killed each other for sport, and where the Romans forced their captives to fight beasts of prey to entertain thousands of bloodthirsty spectators.

That form of savagery is thankfully a thing of the past. The coliseum stands as a massive empty hulk where people buy trinkets, and stand on line for hours to pay an entrance fee to enter the edifice built with the sweat and tears of trapped Jews fighting for their very lives.

The glory that was Rome and the arrogant Caesars are all the stuff of history, studied in order to get a passing grade on a school exam, and promptly forgotten. Today they are nothing more than tourist attractions. People who need diversion from the real world travel to Rome to inspect the sights and photograph them for the folks back home.Titus thought the Jewish people had been wiped off the face of the earth. But it was he whose life is today a mere footnote in history. His accomplishments were of no ultimate value to the world, and the legacy he had craved dissipated, and his life left behind no positive trace.

The ruthless actions of Titus and all the latter day “Tituses” who followed in his footsteps, have failed to extinguish Am Yisroel. Over the centuries, we have been persecuted by an endless stream of arch-foes dedicated to destroying the Jewish nation. We have been decimated, plundered, exiled from country after country, yet miraculously, we survive to rebuild and regain our stature. Those who sought our annihilation have been swept into the trash heap of history.

We are an eternal people, and no matter how weak or vanquished we appear at a given moment in history, we gather strength and rededicate ourselves to our mission.

That is the lesson of the Arch of Titus. It is a poignant reminder of past tragedy and current exile, but also a harbinger of hope.

I am sure that I am not the first Jew who took particular pleasure in absorbing these lessons at the site of the Arch. I am surely not the first to experience the sense of vindication in telling Titus that Am Yisroel is triumphant; that Torah is studied loudly and proudly across the world in multiple languages and dialects. In most places in the world today, Jews practice their religion freely, in peace. Jews continue observing the Torah and practicing the lifestyle that Titus was convinced he had suppressed forever.

A Testament To The Evil Of Which Man Is Capable

The Roman Coliseum is another, much larger, emotional site for Jews. The massive stadium, constructed largely by Jewish slave labor two thousand years ago, still stands as a testament to the evil of which man is capable.

The human toil required in ancient times to construct an edifice of that size, strength and girth is astounding. But it’s even more staggering to consider the fact that the very same society that was so advanced in the science of engineering, displayed its utter lack of humanity in the activities for which this structure was designed.

In this building the masses would regularly gather to watch human beings fight to the death against wild, ferocious animals trained to feast on human flesh. This was the most popular form of entertainment. Many of the victims torn to shreds in that building as a sport for the perverted spectators were our forefathers.

We think we have it rough at times, when things don’t go our way. After all, we are a nation in exile, far from home. But we should never forget to be thankful to our host country for providing us a safe harbor, endowed with unprecedented rights, privileges and opportunities for advancement.

If we do encounter evil people in this moral, humane society, and even if those evil people hold positions of power and influence, a system of jurisprudence is in place which most of the time can be relied upon to right wrongs and protect the vulnerable.

A Very Young Nation In an Old World

Being in a country with buildings hundreds of years old reminds us of our precarious position in golus. From history’s vantage point, we are but a flash away from the most recent attempt to annihilate us. Most of our infrastructure is relatively new. The yeshivos and shuls are new, our organizations are young, and though they are building and growing there is no comparison between a 1000 year-old facility and one recently erected.

Similarly, most of our homes and neighborhoods are relatively new or currently being built.

That ought to remind us how tentative our existence actually is. We can never grow too comfortable. But at the same time we should take strength from our remarkable resilience. While many nations that oppressed and dominated us have long vanished from the stage of history, the Jewish people forge a path through the ashes, relocate, and re-establish ourselves.

Ancient Jewish Community Graces Rome

Another fascinating thing about Rome is its Jewish population which dates back 22 generations in an unbroken chain. The forbearers of today’s Roman Jews were in Rome before the Churban Habayis. While they are not punctiliously observant of the mitzvos, they are proud Jews, cognizant of their heritage.

They have their own minhagim, which are neither Sephardic nor Ashkenazic, since they were established before the golus introduced those distinctions, based on where the exile led us. For hundreds of years, the Jews of Rome were locked into ghettos and tortured by the church, yet they refused to surrender their Jewish identity and held fast to the religion of their fathers.

Italian Jews can pray in shuls many hundreds of years old, many of which are remarkable architectural marvels. The shuls all have mechitzos and reflect no influence of the Reform movement which decimated Western European Jewry. Their davening is much like ours, though interestingly, the Aron Kodesh is in the front of the shul, and the amud and bimah are all the way in the rear, located on an ornately carved platform.

What Ensures A Nation’s Survival?

An encounter with the history of Rome teaches us that neither arches and edifices, nor military triumphs mark a nation’s greatness or ensure its survival.

This message is brought home by a passage in Avos D’Rabi Noson [4, 5], in which the Tana states that Raban Yochanon Ben Zachai was once walking with Rabi Yehoshua when they passed the site of the destroyed Bais Hamikdosh.

Rabi Yehoshua said, “Woe is to us that the site where the sins of Yisroel are forgiven and lies in ruin.” Raban Yochanon Ben Zachai responded that we have a spiritual tool that activates Divine forgiveness just as the Beis Hamikdosh did. That is the power of gemilus chesed – acts of kindness—that elicit atonement as korbonos were able to do.

Raban Yochanon Ben Zachai lived at the time of the churban and fought to bring an end to the Jewish rebellion against Rome, which he knew would fail. He sought to inspire brotherhood among the Jewish people and to erase the hatred which ultimately led to the destruction of the Beis Hamikdosh.

When he saw that his efforts would prove futile, he had himself smuggled out of Yerushalayim for an audience with the Roman ruler, Vespasian. Foreseeing the impending destruction, Avos D’Rabi Noson [ibid] and the Gemorah Gitin [56b] relate, Raban Yochanon Ben Zachai requested that the city of Yavneh, which housed the central yeshiva, be spared.

The great Tana understood that in the absence of the Beis Hamikdosh, it would be the Torah, the giants who teach it and their students who study it, who would maintain the Jewish people through the ensuing centuries of golus with their terrible suffering, turmoil and upheavals.

By saving Yavneh, Raban Yochanon Ben Zachai saved the Jewish people from Roman destruction. He couldn’t prevent the conquerors from destroying the great buildings, residences and the communal infrastructure, but he was able to guarantee the survival of Am Yisroel until this very day.

He taught us the importance of chesed and its unparalleled value in the absence of the Beis Hamikdosh. He risked his life to guarantee that the yeshiva of Yavneh be maintained and that Raban Gamliel and Rabi Tzadok be spared. For without proper leadership and without Torah, the Romans would have triumphed in their mission to annihilate the Jewish nation.

In our own day, as we face so many internal and external threats to our survival, let us heed the message of the ancient Arch of Titus—that the seeds of survival and redemption can sprout even from the tragedy of destruction. Let us do everything in our power to activate the Divine formula for longevity and forgiveness through our study and support of Torah coupled with the practice of chesed, so that we are found worthy of the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdosh, bimheirah b’yomeinu, amen.


Blogger Michael Chusid said...

I have quoted from your beautiful teaching on my blog at

I trust this is acceptable to you.

Thank you.

4:34 PM  

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