If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its cunning; let my tongue stick to my palette if cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.—Psalm 137
Whoever mourns for Zion will be privileged to behold her joy.—Talmud, Sotah
To believe is to remember. The substance of our very being is memory, our way of living is retaining the reminders, articulating memory. After the destruction of Jerusalem, the city did not simply become a vague memory of the distant past; it continued to live as an inspiration in the hearts and minds. of the people. Jerusalem became a central hope, symbol of our hopes.—Abraham Joshua Heschel
I remember a family trip several years ago to Jerusalem for my brother-in-law’s wedding. Late in the summer, Israel’s heat extends into its nights, thick and heavy. The week prior to Danny’s wedding, my wife and I were in Jerusalem, walking the city’s streets — now alive again with activity, development and people, savoring our chance to absorb its smells, sounds and character. With the coincidence of Tisha B’Av (the ninth of Av) and Danny’s wedding at the same time, Elana and I had a chance to mark the fast in one of Jerusalem’s many synagogues.
We chose Congregation Emet Ve-Emunah (Truth and Faith), where my father-in-law had become a bar mitzvah many decades prior. The congregation still met in the same basement, at the bottom of an old apartment building on one of the city’s winding side streets.
As my eyes adjusted to the dim light of the synagogue, which was itself little more than a basement with benches, a podium and a ponderous wooden closet containing a few Torah scrolls, the attendants passed out candles to everyone present. To my surprise, they then turned out all the lights, punctuating the dark with a scattering of candles, one per worshiper. At the front of the sanctuary, his back facing us so he would pour out his song toward the Ark, to God, the Hazzan chanted the mournful words of Eikhah, the Book of Lamentations, describing the Babylonian assault on Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. and the suffering of its inhabitants.
The present dissolved. Huddled on low benches while mourning the Hurban (the destruction) of Solomon’s Temple, and of the Second Temple some two thousand years ago, I felt that Tisha B’Av seemed more compelling, a more potent symbol of the human predicament than anything in contemporary life. In the basement of a rebuilt apartment complex in Jerusalem, we fasted and cried over the ruins of ancient Jerusalem and the disappointments of the human condition.
Each year at the same time, the residents of Jerusalem enact a poignant paradox. Despite the fact that the city has been reunited, that Israel’s capital is now the home of a great university, impressive museums and concert centers, bustling commerce, vibrant new and old neighborhoods, once a year the people of Jerusalem, as do Jews everywhere, pause to mourn the destruction of their ancient city — our city — thousands of years ago.
To observe Tisha B’Av in Jerusalem is to allow the past to engulf the present, to induce a willful amnesia in the conviction that the resultant memory will be more true, more incisive and more real. To mourn the destruction of ancient Jerusalem is to deny the present its despotic hold on our attention, to affirm that there is much to learn from the past—about human living, about coping with despair and suffering, about redeeming the human heart.
Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning that originated in the year 586 B.C.E., when the First Temple—the one built by King Solomon some 400 years earlier—was destroyed by the Babylonians, and the Jews of Israel were forcibly deported east. At the same season, in the year 70 C.E., the Roman troops under their general Titus destroyed the Second Temple, ending an era in Jewish worship. Throughout the years, this day has remained a magnet attracting Jewish suffering: The Edict of the Expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290 and the expulsion from Spain in 1492 were both signed at the time of Tisha B’Av. The tragedy of World War I was initiated on Tisha B’Av, in many ways setting the stage for World War II and the murder of six million Jews in the Shoah.
For the past two thousand years, Jews have used this day as a sponge, absorbing millennia of suffering and abuse at the hands of pagan, Christian and Moslem persecutors, and more recently, Nazi, Communist, terrorist and White Supremacist assaults. Years of forced conversions, rape, degradation, pogroms, lynchings and murders contribute to a renewed memory and determination on Tisha B’Av.
Suffering alone cannot provide purpose to Jewish identity, but one cannot come to terms with what that identity has meant without grappling with the ancient and resurgent presence of antisemitism.
Suffering alone cannot provide purpose to Jewish identity, but one cannot come to terms with what that identity has meant without grappling with the ancient and resurgent presence of antisemitism. On Tisha B’Av, we mourn that so many people have hated so much. We cry over the consequent suffering of innocents beyond counting.
But this fast is not simply to record the endlessness of Jew hatred and Jew beatings. This day also marks the end of Jewish sovereignty, of the kind of security and self-confidence that can only emerge when a people controls its own destiny, lives on its own land, determines its future for itself.
Some two thousand years ago, on Tisha B’Av, Jews lost the power to cultivate our own character according to our own standards. Stripped of control, of the authority of our own leaders and laws, Jews became the subject of other peoples’ legal systems, other peoples’ cultural priorities and prejudices, other peoples’ armies and police. For two thousand years, we have developed a variety of Jewish identities and cultures, always judged by external standards, living as a persecuted minority, in countries we were told were not ours, we learned to keep a wary eye on how others would perceive our values, our symbols and our achievements.
On Tisha B’Av, then, we mourn our lost independence and our weakened self-confidence. We mourn our dependence on the whims and kindnesses of strangers.
Finally, on Tisha B’Av, we attend not only to history — the loss of a building and of national standing — we mourn a psychological and spiritual reality as well.
For our ancestors the Temple was not merely a place of worship and pomp; it was a symbol of wholeness. There it was possible to fulfill the desire of our Creator completely, to become one with God. Religion — tangible in form and simple in concept — provided a concrete way to expiate guilt, express gratitude, and share in success. By its very structure the Temple stood beyond time, offering the iron-clad assurances that God dwelt there, that all was well.
The Hurban destroyed that sense of well-being. Instead of providing a place where Jews knew exactly how to make good with God, the ruins now became a potent symbol that we all live in a world of inevitable pain and ultimate abandonment. Love affairs, so full of promise at the start, often slide into mediocrity or erupt into hostility. Careers fail to provide a sense of excitement or purpose — jobs are frequently lost or denied. Children and parents rarely fulfill each other’s dreams and expectations. Those we love move to distant places. Illness erupts into the best of lives; people die. Each of us, no matter how content we may be, live under the shadow of aging and our own mortality.
The Hurban symbolizes all that. There is no perfect place. The Temple, a projection of the harmony and unity that we perceived as children, has fallen before the onslaught of maturity, sexuality and death. On Tisha B’Av, we mourn the loss of that innocence. And of wholeness.
At the very beginning of the evening service for Tisha B’Av, the Hazzan rises to announce that “This year is the __th year since the destruction of the Holy Temple. Each generation in which the Temple is not rebuilt should regard itself as responsible for its destruction.”
There is no Temple. The world is still saturated with disappointment, disease and despair. Our task, simple to articulate and impossible to complete, is to begin the work of rebuilding the Temple — by restoring a wholeness to our shattered planet, renewing a bond of trust between humanity and its members, repeating the commitment made by our ancestors to nurture our covenant with God, to be a holy people.
Tisha B’Av, by forcing us to recognize a trail of tragedy and a psychology of division, is the crucial first step toward transformation and transcendence. In the words of the Talmud, “You are not required to complete the task, yet neither are you free to desist from it.”
Tisha B’Av signifies a willingness to begin the task, even though its conclusion eludes our view.
It is up to us to begin.
Bradley Shavit Artson, a contributing writer to the Jewish Journal, is Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University.