Napoleon’s Jewish Insight

Once upon a time, the great Napoleon paid a state visit to Russia.  Proud of the enlightened way his country, France, treated its Jewish population, he asked to see some Russian Jews.  His hosts brought him to a St. Petersburg synagogue.

Entering the synagogue lit by only a few flickering candles, they found it filled with Jews sitting on the floor weeping in the dark.  Napoleon swung around accusingly to his Russian hosts and asked, “What did you do to them?”

Just as astonished, the Russians hastily denied complicity in whatever horrible calamity had produced this misery.  Napoleon turned to the bereft community and asked what tragedy had befallen them.

The rabbi stepped forward and softly sobbed, “Our Temple has been destroyed.”

Turning a reproachful face to his Russian guides, Napoleon asked why the Czar had done such a terrible thing.  His hosts insisted that they were baffled by the accusation.

Questioning further, Napoleon soon discovered that the Temple in question had stood not in Russia but in Jerusalem, and had been destroyed not recently but over 2,000 years earlier.

Napoleon is said to have proclaimed, “Any nation linked so powerfully to its history that it agonizes over such an ancient loss will ultimately outlive both France and Russia.”

Unbeknown to the government delegation, Napoleon’s visit took place on Tisha B’Av, which is observed this year on Aug. 11th. On this saddest day of the Hebrew calendar, committed Jews everywhere will grieve and lament, neither eating nor drinking for 25 hours.

The date’s significance traces back to the Israelites wandering in the desert.  As the time arrived to enter Israel, Moses sent men to spy out the land.  Instead of returning with an encouraging report, they terrified Israel with their cowardly depiction of an unconquerable land. Ignoring God’s promise to take them into the Land the children of Israel wept in despair.

The congregation lifted up their voice, and cried; the people wept all that night.
Numbers 14:1

Ancient Jewish wisdom informs us of God’s response which is both eerily prophetic and a solemn warning for our own lives.

…God said to Israel, “You cry for nothing, by my life I shall give you something to really cry about
on this date in every generation.”

This is not a vindictive or petty response. God is recognizing a deep flaw in the people, who are all too quick to lose faith in Him and thus in themselves as well and who too often find it easier to weep than to rejoice.

All nations have sad days in their histories, but as you’d expect, they are distributed randomly around the calendar.  However, with Jewish history there is nothing random.  In a way that utterly defies rational analysis, for three thousand years Jewish national tragedies have clustered about this date, the Ninth of  Av. 

The destructions of both Jerusalem Temples, massacres, expulsions, pogroms and other disasters for the Jewish people occur disproportionately on or near Tisha B’Av—the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av. 

But, we Jews recognize that the Temples were not destroyed because of the overwhelming power of the Babylonian army or the relentless advance of Roman forces.  Sadly we know that both Temples were destroyed because of flaws in Jewish behavior. 

It is an act of kindness that God clusters the tragedies most mysteriously around the date of the Ninth of Av to remind us that these tragedies are not random. If we only lived as we should, God would offer His protection over us just as surely as He would have brought the Israelites safely into their land.

We still mourn so deeply over the tragedies that God sends to His people century after century because they remind us of how much our present lives need to be examined and improved.   In that mourning there is comfort. Just as God brings calamities, He can and will also bring salvation and redemption. 

To move on the path of redemption, one first small step is to teach ourselves and our children that rather than being petty grumblers who allow our complaints and fears to overwhelm us, we should strive to recognize God’s goodness and blessings, seeking joy and happiness.

Adapted and reprinted from Thought Tools 2008

16 thoughts on “Napoleon’s Jewish Insight”

  1. Rabbi, I recently read a disturbing article regarding the bolshevik revolution and gulags. It talks about Jewish leaders of the Russian communist party.
    Can you please explain what happened?

  2. Very timely for me personally. Thank you for reminding us that the timing of tragedy could actually be an act of kindness from the Almighty. Our tragedy can also be traced to our own behavior and choices, sadly. The last paragraph in particular, brings tears to my eyes of the truth in the words. Thank you again for a timely encouraging message.

  3. Kristofa Okenta

    I am glad that I have learnt so much Jewish wisdom and insight since I signed up to you.

  4. Dear Rabbi Lapin,
    Wonderful story. I am so thankful you share your knowledge of Gods word with us. I treasure your insight.

  5. Glen Christensen

    I cherish these thought tools. They always provide rich spiritual insights that are as applicable today as they would have been centuries ago and as they will be millennia from now. I’m excited for tomorrow night’s dinner where we can discuss the significance of Tisha B’Av as a family. Thank you Rabbi Lapin.

  6. Very well written! Challenge accepted, I will try this fast. I am a homeless disciple of Jesus Christ on a quest through my disabilities to Victory! Praise Jesus forever! Shalom!

  7. I think it is most important now because of all of the calamities that seem to be happening to use them as opportunities to draw closer to God and strengthening our faith than grumbling or dwelling on the negatives. Remembering that God’s strength is made manifest in our weakness. We also should never forget that God is STILL in control and His timing is always perfect.

  8. Catherine Alexander

    Very good. The purposeful and meaningful life is a fulfilled life. We must always look to the Lord for light when we are in the darkest places. Much thanks, Rabbi.

  9. That’s the benefit of born-again Christianity, the knowledge of how the story ends brings comfort to any situation of mourning. You cant beat the offer of life eternal with your Father in Heaven. And all you need is the faith of a mustard seed….

  10. To fast 25 hrs while digesting the need of examination and improvement, priceless, well spent time.

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