One of the more peculiar Talmudic statements concerns a document composed over two millennia ago entitled Megillat Ta’anit. This ‘Scroll of Fasting’ lists 35 days in the year when one may not fast due to some joyful event that took place on that day.
The majority of these minor holidays commemorate the rescinding of some evil decree against the Jewish people. The most well-known is the holiday of Purim, when the Jews of Persia were saved from Haman’s plot to destroy them.
“Our Rabbis taught: Who wrote Megillat Ta’anit? Hananiah ben Hezekiah and his colleagues, who cherished the troubles.” (Shabbat 13b)
What an unusual trait for a scholar — “who cherished the troubles”! Who likes hardships and tribulations? What does this mean?
Rashi explains that they cherished the miraculous rescue from these persecutions. They appreciated the opportunity to express our thanks and gratitude to God. But the literal interpretation of the phrase indicates that these scholars found value in the troubles themselves.
Rav Kook suggested a bold theory, proposing that these harsh events played an important and positive role in the survival of Israel. Counterintuitively, they have a part in the Divine providence which watches over the Jewish people, especially during the long and difficult centuries of dispersion and exile.
How do persecutions protect the people of Israel?
The continued existence of Israel depends on the love and connection that each individual Jew feels for God, for His Torah in our midst, and for the Jewish people in general. This is an innate love, flowing from the soul’s natural inclinations, which is substantiated by the intellectual recognition of how fitting is this love for the entire people, with its Torah and special national mission.
When the nation is in exile, however, this innate love may wane. Ties to the Jewish people tend to weaken as individuals find their own path in life. They become fully engaged in their own personal goals and aspirations, without considering the holy ties binding them to God’s covenant — a covenant granted to the collective, which reaches the individual through the collective.
At such times, additional means are needed to bolster the connection of each individual to the nation.
In an earlier age, Divine Providence provided a means to watch over humanity and its moral obligations. After the sin of Adam and Eve, the distinction between right and wrong became blurred, and commitments to family and community were less binding.
The punishments meted out after Adam’s sin — “I will greatly increase your anguish and your pregnancy. With anguish you will give birth to children... You will derive food from [the land] with anguish all the days of your life” (Gen. 3:16-17) — these were not arbitrary punishments. They were meant to protect and strengthen the family unit. By increasing the difficulty in bringing children into the world and providing for them, they reinforced the natural love of parents for their children. More invested in their children, fathers and mothers would be more willing to suffer the burdens of raising children until they become independent.
A similar dynamic is at work with the Jewish people. It was critical that the connection to Torah, Jewish faith, and the nation of Israel should not be weakened as a result of dispersion and exile. This is particularly true when we witness many peoples, after losing their national independence and sovereignty, assimilate within conquering empires and disappear from the annals of history.
What will strengthen the natural love of Israel, so that even its lowliest members will recognize its value, and be willing to undergo the hardships of exile?
This is the function of troubles and persecutions. The challenges met and the dangers confronted for the sake of observing Torah, for the sake of Jewish faith, or merely for the sake of Jewish identity — they lead to an awakening of love and connection in the hearts of the children, throughout the generations. We learn to appreciate the heavy price which the Jewish national soul has paid for its survival and the survival of its Torah. This very awareness bestows strength and resolve, a sense of connection and allegiance.
With this in mind, these sages composed Megillat Ta’anit. They recognized the value that knowledge of these trials and tribulations in our national history would impart for future generations. “They cherished the troubles.”
(Adapted from Ein Eyah, Shabbat vol. 1 (1:62) on Shabbat 13)