August 22, 2019

Let us reap wisdom sown by tragedy of Tisha B’Av

This week we observe the fast of Tisha B’Av, commemorating the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Last year before Tisha B’Av, The Jewish Journal published an article that loosely and foolishly spoke of the destruction of the Temple as a good thing.  Those who offer such opinions do not, perhaps, fully grasp that it meant the death of sages, scholars and countless less-distinguished women, men and children of Israel. They may not recall that it was the end of sovereignty for thousands of years and left Jews at the mercy of others — the often cruel fates that scar our history.  Psychoanalysts tell us that it is the unremembered history that controls us; Jews have always sought to remember our catastrophes — not because they control us, but so that they will not. We do not pretend that tragedies were hidden triumphs or that our sadness is misplaced. 

Since the Temple burned and our people were exiled, however, we sought to understand how to absorb our history to change our destiny. A resigned fatalism is alien to the Jewish spiritual DNA. Our ancestors suffered, but that does not mean our children must suffer. 

In the Talmud, we are told that on the day the Temple was destroyed, nifseka homat habarzel — an iron wall separated Israel from God. Several years ago, Rabbi Gordon Tucker brought a teaching from the late scholar Baruch Bokser, who points out that nifseka can be interpreted to mean either that an iron wall came down and effected a separation between God and Israel — or that the iron wall ceased. In other words, the destruction also had a side that released certain energies in the Jewish people. We lost many ways of serving God and of being a people when the Temple was razed. But potential that was unknown before came to fruition.

This lesson is particularly potent in an apocalyptic age. There are preposterous uses of the “end time,” clear in coinages like “carmeggedon.” But we do have a natural tendency to urge the end. As Frank Kermode pointed out some time ago in his book “The Sense of an Ending,” we say that clocks go tick-tock. But they don’t. They go tick-tick. We supply the tock. Our craving for conclusions is deep within us. We can’t stand to listen to music without the final resolving chord; we don’t like movies that refuse to wrap up neatly. Voldemort must die, Dorothy must wake up in her Kansas bed, and Odysseus return home. We check how many pages are left in the book until we get to the ending. Tock.

So Harold Camping convinces scores of people that the end is near. People find eschatological portents in numbers, wars, constellations and ancient prophecies. In every generation there have been predictions of the imminent arrival of the Messiah, the end, the tock.  Such yearning for the drama to end often leads to what scholar Gershom Scholem called a life “lived in deferment.” Too easily are impatient souls waiting for that concluding note and missing the music as it plays.

Tisha B’Av instructs us on another attitude toward catastrophe and the sense of the ending. Our sages teach that every tragedy contains within it the seeds of redemption. The destruction of the Temple and the dispersion of the people was also an opportunity. The Temple served for some as a wall, separating them from a more direct relationship with God. Therefore, the spread of synagogues to replace the lost center of worship introduced something vital and wonderful into Jewish life. We know that, historically, synagogues already existed while the Temple was still standing. Without a Temple, however, they proliferated. It is a legacy of monotheism: You can only raise synagogues all over the world if you recognize that God is everywhere. God is tied to no single land or clime. Exile emphasized the Torah’s truth, that no place is empty of the Divine. Instead of a coffin, wandering became a cradle; rather than end our people, it provided new beginnings.

Story continues after the jump.

On Tisha B’Av, Ashkenazim do not wear tefillin at the morning service; for the only time during the year, we put them on later, in the afternoon. It signals the move from tragedy to promise. Following the wisdom of Psalm 23, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” we understand that the key term is “walk.” We cannot stay in the valley. As we wrap the tefillin, we are reminded that they cannot, in the poet’s phrase, “rust unburnished” but rather must “shine in use.” So with each soul; mourning is a temporary condition, and one must carry its meaning into the daylight.

History is never univocal. Destruction and creation, loss and renewal are twined together like voices in harmony. The Psalmist cries out that he does not know if his people could sing in the new land of Babylon (Psalm 137). But on those strange shores, the Babylonian Talmud was born. We became creative in virtually every living literature in the world. Jews contributed to all the societies that alternately welcomed and scorned them. Still, the memory of destruction was never far from our minds. Corners of houses were left unpainted, to remind us that we were not fully home. In our prayers, as today, we prayed for rain not when it was needed in France, or Russia, or Los Angeles, but in Israel. We kept our clocks set on Jerusalem time. 

This dialectic of all we lost and all we wove out of our losses is the guiding thread of Jewish history. Only a callow disregard for suffering would see the Temple’s destruction as less than a monumental tragedy. “Eicha Yashva Badad” — how does the city, Jerusalem, sit solitary, cries the lamentation that we read on Tisha B’Av. The pain of the exiled Jews is enshrined in words echoing through the ages: Jerusalem in ashes. But how sad and dispirited to miss the exuberant creativity and genius unleashed in the world by an enforced Diaspora. 

On Tisha B’Av, we cry for all we have lost. We have lost, we Jews, so very much.  But mourning will end. The state has been restored. Though we are embattled, we are no longer helpless. We may not all agree, but the cacophony of Jewish voices is free and strong. The lessons of Tisha B’Av, its sadness, its song, endure.

David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple. You can follow his teachings at