Ayelet Ben Shitrit – Head of the Hannaton Alumni Division
Over the past year, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about the themes of destruction and the construction that follows it. We can see this motif repeated over and over in the scriptures: the breaking of the stone tablets, the burning of the Torah by Apostomus, and the destruction of the First and Second Temple. This painful repetition is also evident in ancient Greek and Egyptian mythologies – most notably the tales of the phoenix reborn through fire.
These themes convey a deeply embedded human notion: that the traumatic ending of the old world is what will lead us to the new world. This isn’t simply a historic quirk: we can find its like in modern incarnations like the left-wing anthem of L'Internationale: “Of the past let us wipe the slate clean / Masses, slaves, arise, arise / The world is about to change its foundation / We are nothing, let us be everything”. Thinkers which we contemporarily identify with the political right repeat the very same, such as in Nietzsche’s words: “To build a temple one must destroy a temple”. Both speak of a very intimate focus on the redemptive: true catharsis can only arrive by working our way from our lowest point, the place where we are broken until we can break no more.
For forty years, the Children of Israel walked the desert – a generation ruined to enable the rebirth of their descendants, from slaves to free people worthy of the land of milk and honey. Similar reconstitutions occur throughout history – the expulsion of Jews from Spain, the horrors of the Holocaust. Points of terrible pain and mourning after which, the chain of generations teaches us, we may rebuild anew.
The connection between destruction and construction is, at least to my eyes, very clear. I was raised to remember that a crisis represents a learning opportunity, a chance to develop. It forces us to act and bring about a change – if destruction would not come, what would drive us forward? The hour of need is the greatest catalyst. But is the price it brings with it truly worth paying? Do we have to see what we truly cherish ruined every time we want to seek a new path? Does evolution demand revolution?
Einstein said that we cannot do the same thing over and over and expect different results. I tend to agree with him. I don’t believe we have to change everything from the ground up every time we start again, but we can’t be too precious about keeping everything safely tucked away. The Scroll of Lamentations has a verse that very much resonates with me on this matter: “Turn thou us unto thee, O Lord, and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old” (5:21). In Hebrew, “of old” is just one word, Kedem. It is the root of both the words Kadom, ancient; and Kidma; progress.
The theme of destruction and construction speaks to something we will all experience, as individuals, as communities, as societies. It is an unavoidable part of our lives, one way or another. The question is, can we learn from the destruction that will inevitably come and build something better for those who follow. Destruction need not be total – some forests can only grow after a forest fire.
I’ll finish with the words of Berl Katznelson: “A renewing and creative generation does not throw the cultural heritage of ages into the dustbin. It examines and scrutinizes, accepts and rejects. At times it may keep and add to an accepted tradition. At times it descends into ruined grottoes to excavate and remove the dust from that which had laid in forgetfulness, in order to resuscitate old traditions which have the power to stimulate the spirit of the generation of renewal.”