Despair and Hope: The Challenges of Tisha B’Av
[My photo: Ruins of the the Second Temple destroyed by Rome in 70 CE]
One of the least commemorated holydays in the Jewish calendar cycle is commemorated today (Sunday, July 22, 2018), Tisha B’Av (i.e. the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av), the day marking the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem (586 BCE by the Babylonians and 70 CE by Rome).
Each destruction was traumatic in the ancient Jewish world. Historical documents record that blood flowed like a river through the streets of Jerusalem, that the survivors became slaves to the conquerors and that God was driven into exile with the people.
Beyond the geopolitics of those horrific events, sages of later centuries linked the two destructions to the Jewish people’s behavior.
Following the first destruction, they explained mip’nei cha-ta-einu gi-li-nu m’ar-tzei-nu (“because of our sins we were exiled from our land”). The prophets identified particular sins as the cause including the perversion of justice, the disregard for the needs of the widow, orphan and stranger, and the worship of the false gods of profit and materialism.
Following the second destruction, the rabbis of the Talmud explained mip’nei sinat chi-nam gi-li-nu m’ar-tzei-nu (“Because of gratuitous hatred [of one Jew for another] we were exiled from our land”).
Over the centuries Tisha B’Av became a day of national mourning for the Jewish people. For modern Jews, focusing on the sins of the people as the first cause of the destruction raises difficult theological and moral problems after the Holocaust. Yet, even if we believe we are individually and collectively innocent of the oppressive and hard-hearted conditions that characterize our era, Rabbi Heschel reminds us that “some are guilty, but all are responsible” and that as witnesses to those social ills we must act out of duty and a sense of justice.
For modern Jews as well, gratuitous hatred of one Jew for another is a trend that ought to disturb all who value the unity of the Jewish people.
The traditionally ascribed causes of the destruction of the first and second Temples remain extant today, and thus Tisha b’Av has modern relevance and meaning. This Holyday is a veritable warning of how history can be repeated if we aren’t vigilant in our advocacy of justice on the one hand and love of the Jewish people despite our differences on the other.
Towards the end of the day, during the Minchah afternoon service, the mood of Tisha B’Av abruptly changes. At that hour, tradition teaches, the Messiah will be born. Thus, our mourning is transformed into celebration and our dejection is converted into anticipation of reunification with God and our people.
Though national in character, Tisha B’Av also has a personal corollary and application. Rose Kennedy lost four of her children during her lifetime. She taught them, as recalled by Ted Kennedy in his memoir True Compass, the following:
“The birds will sing when the storm is over; the rose must know the thorn; the valley makes the mountain tall.”