Another Tishah B’Av: On Jacob and Esau, Ukraine and Russia

Another Tishah B’Av: On Jacob and Esau, Ukraine and Russia

(delivered by Rabbi Sacks at a service for Ukraine on March 13, 2022)[1]


To frame why we are here in a Jewish perspective, I would like to share a passage from the Jerusalem Talmud. The passage dates from well over 1,900 years ago. In it, Rabbi Yehudah bei Rabbi Ilai teaches[2] in the name of his teacher Baruch:

הַקּוֹל ק֣וֹל יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב וְהַיָּדַ֖יִם יְדֵ֥י עֵשָֽׂו׃

קוֹלוֹ שֶׁלְיַעֲקֹב צָווַח מִמָּה שֶׁעָשׂוּ לוֹ יָדָיו שֶׁלְעֵשָׂיו בְּבִיתְתָּר.

Rabbi Yehudah first quotes a well-known verse in Genesis: “‘The voice is the voice of Jacob but the hands are the hands of Esau.’”[3] Rabbi Yehudah then immediately interprets the verse: “The voice is the voice of Jacob crying out because of what the hands of Esau did to him at Beitar.”

Rabbi Yehuda reimagines the biblical story of Jacob and Esau playing out in the time of Rome. By mentioning Beitar, the passage refers to the conflict between dictatorial Rome, or Esau, and the Jews, depicted as Jacob between 132-135 CE. It is popularly known as the Bar Kokhba rebellion, after the Jews’ leader, Shimon bar Kokhba.

Beitar was a thriving urban center five miles southwest of Jerusalem. Rome used a pretext to amass forces on its border. At least four top legions of the Roman army surrounded the city. The Jews bravely lasted three and a half years, before falling on Tisha B’Av. The Romans then massacred some 80,000 people, rebels and innocents.

Elsewhere, Rabbi Yochanan reported[4] a site where some 300 children were massacred at once. The Talmud reports the murder of thousands of children.[5] The Emperor Hadrian refused to allow the removal, let alone burial, of the victims. “Let them rot,” he decreed.

After the war, the Romans razed Jerusalem to the ground, and destroyed all the small outlets around Beitar, and then the city of Beitar itself. Unstopped dictators just don’t stop.

This passage depicts the cries of Jacob, our people, even while bravely facing the hands of Esau, the might of Rome. We are reminded that totalitarianism and freedom are eternal antagonists, with Judaism squarely on the side of freedom.

And this passage is why we’re here today, for we seem to be in the midst of another Tishah B’Av tragedy. To wit, Putin is Esau is Rome. He misspeaks to the U.N and misinforms his people, pretending he is the voice of Jacob, just and kind, but his hands are the hands of Esau, as he has secretly been plotting, as Rome did. He amassed troops, as Rome did, and entered the nation of Ukraine on a pretext, as Rome entered Eretz Yisrael, and has horrifically gone after noncombatants, the innocents, just as Rome did. The Ukrainian people against the Russians, like the Jewish people against the Romans, are trying to defend their country and their dignity. So far they have held out.

Moreover the passage implicitly asks us, “Where is the dignity of those who might have helped?” And today if we, all free nations and all free people, do not do what they can, then how can we Jews say, “Al tishkach.[6] Never again,” and how can we, the West, retain our dignity?

I don’t have all the answers; none of us do. But we must all consider the questions, for these are the questions that should haunt us all.


[1] The Coachella Valley (Palm Springs area) Jewish Community Service for Ukraine was held at Sinai Temple in Palm Desert.

[2] JT Ta’anit 4:8c (68d).

[3] Genesis 27:22.

[4] Lamentations Rabbah 2:5

[5] BT Gittin 58a.

[6] Meaning, “Don’t [i.e. Never] forget.