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They say that history is written by the winners.
This was the sentiment that I felt exactly two years ago when I was sitting under the Arch of Titus during this period known as the Three Weeks. The Three weeks is a period of time in which many Jews observe a low-level state of mourning in order to commemorate the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Beginning with the 17 of Tammuz, a fast day in which Jews remember the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem by the Roman army, the Three Weeks represent the days until the eventual fall of Jerusalem and the Temple three weeks later.
The Arch of Titus, which was erected in Rome about 10 years after the destruction of the Second Temple, proudly depicts the Roman army marching out of Jerusalem carrying many objects from the Temple. Most famous amongst this procession was the golden Menorah, a staple of the Jerusalem Temple. A small inscription on the monument describes how the Arch of Titus was set up to honor the “son of the divine Vespasian” by dedicating this important victory to his memory.
It was truly a surreal moment, sitting under the Arch, watching tourists from a multiplicity of backgrounds taking their pictures with the monument. I silently wondering if these people understood that this Arch, and what it represents, heavily defined the last 2,000 years of Jewish history via prayers, poems, and even theology. The pain of this monument cut so deep that some ancient Jewish authorities even went so far as to write that a Jew who purposely walks under the Arch is immediately excommunicated from the community.
In Judaism, however, sadness and mourning is never meant to be a lasting state. Sadness is the realization that the current state is not the ideal and that we should take a moment to reflect on what was lost – with the intent to inspire us towards the future.
It is perhaps in this light that the design for the emblem of Israel was directly inspired by the Menorah depicted on the Arch of Titus. While the founders of Israel were not religious, they understood the deep importance of Jewish history and the 2,000-year feeling of exile. At last, after thousands of years, the Menorah that was carried out of Jerusalem by the Roman army, is symbolically reinstated in its homeland.
However, the use of the Menorah by the founders from Israel may reflect an even deeper idea, and one that is crucial to internalize as a community. The use of the Menorah is meant to show that Judaism has been able to move on from a heavy emphasis on physical objects, instead opting for a culture of ideas and values. Maybe, the physical Menorah that was carried away, along with the Temple that was burnt to the ground, are actually unimportant – rather it is their symbolic meaning that lives on.
Yes, these objects are an instrumental part of our history – but the Jewish people have moved on without them – slowly replacing them with a home-centered and value-centric version of Judaism. This process ultimately created a more advanced form of religion that doesn’t require sacrifices, priests, and rituals practiced only by the elite. Most nations and religions would have slowly died out once their capital and Temple were destroyed – but we found a way to not only live on from this tragedy, but better ourselves because of it.
The use of the Menorah by the founders of Israel represents that Judaism has been able to stop wallowing in destruction and sadness and instead look towards the future. A future which focuses on values and ideas rather than buildings or monuments – along with individuals and communities over artifacts and vessels.
In the prophetic words of the prolific Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai:
Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower, I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!” I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”
The winners may have been able to write the history, but it is us who control our future as a nation.
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