September 20, 2019

Tisha B’Av: The Hottest Ticket in Israel

Why do we continue to fast and mourn on Tisha B’Av?

Maimonides teaches:

There are days when the entire Jewish people fast because of the calamities that occurred to them then, in order to arouse their hearts and initiate them in the paths of repentance (teshuva). This will serve as a reminder of our own wicked conduct and that of our ancestors, which resembles our present conduct, and therefore brought these calamities upon them and upon us. By reminding ourselves of these matters, we will repent and improve our conduct, as [Leviticus 26:40] states: “And they will confess their sin and the sin of their ancestors. (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Ta’aniyot [Fast Days], 5:1)

Much like the individual engages in teshuva (repenting for sins and misdeeds) throughout Elul through to Yom Kippur, so, too, the Jewish people as a whole must engage in a “collective teshuva” on Tisha B’Av.

Maimonides teaches us that on Tisha B’Av, we are not only mourning the actual loss of the Temples, but are primarily mourning and reflecting upon our own poor behavior as a people – abandonment of Torah and mitzvot, coupled with moral decadence – that led to both Temples being destroyed.

But Maimonides takes it one step further. He teaches us that the true power of Tisha B’Av is when we conduct a national “moral check-up” of the current state of internal affairs in the Jewish world. This means that in addition to fasting, reading the Book of Lamentations and sitting on the floor with ashes on our heads reading Kinot (dirges about loss and destruction), we must also conduct symposiums on what’s happening in our own Jewish communities. But does this happen? Are Jewish communities willing to “look and search deep within” to see what’s wrong, what requires “tikkun” (repair), and how we are going to repair what’s wrong?

One Jewish community is willing to do this. It’s name: Israel.

For many years, Tisha B’Av was off the radar of most Israelis (other than religious or traditional Israelis). They viewed it as an antiquated, outdated fast day, with no contemporary relevance. Many even said “Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron are our Israeli Tisha B’Av,” and – especially after Jerusalem was re-united in 1967 – the continued mourning over Jerusalem seemed silly to most Israelis.

Many who held these views were unaware of Maimonides’s teachings, and were also unaware of what a great 19th century rabbi — the Netziv – wrote about the destruction of the Second Temple:

The Jewish community of the Second Temple period was a crooked and perverse generation. True, they were Tsadikim (righteous) and Hasidim (pious), and amongst them lived many great Torah scholars. However, they were not Yesharim (upright and just) in their daily conduct towards one another. Therefore, as a result of the deeply rooted Sinat Hinam (baseless hatred) towards each other, each person looked upon his own religious behavior as being the only legitimate form of religiosity, and whoever did not believe or behave according to that form of religiosity was labeled a heretic. This perverse form of thinking led to zealotry, murder and the deepest divisiveness within the Jewish community. The results of this trend led to corruption, which ultimately led to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is for all of these reasons that one may even justify God’s decree of destruction, because God is Yashar (upright and just), and God does not tolerate such self-righteous individuals whose behavior, supposedly “For the sake of heaven,” is actually crooked and corrupt. The result of corrupt behavior for so-called “religious reasons” is ultimately the destruction of human society and civilization here on earth (Netziv’s Introduction to the Book of Genesis).

On November 4, 1995, when an Israeli Jew pulled the trigger on his own prime minister, Israelis were shocked into understanding what the Netziv meant. Suddenly, the concept of Sinat Hinam (baseless hatred) was alive and present in Israeli society, and had reached its low point.

On the first Tisha B’Av after Rabin’s assassination, an ad hoc group of young Israelis – religious and secular – decided to get together and have a symposium on what was going wrong in Israeli society. They felt that in light of Rabin’s assassination and the deep polarization it created within Israeli society, it was time to bring Tisha B’Av and its lessons of Sinat Hinam back into the consciousness and discourse of Israeli society.

Every subsequent Tisha B’Av, the original small group grew in size, until one Tisha B’Av, 14 years ago, one of them had the brilliant idea of turning this ad hoc symposium into a nationwide Tisha B’Av program. This idea succeeded largely due to a brilliant marketing campaign. On Tisha B’Av, it is prohibited to study Torah (the exception being studying the Book of Lamentations, or any section of the Talmud dealing with the destruction of Jerusalem). This prohibition stems from the fact that we are not allowed to engage in anything enjoyable on Tisha B’Av, and Torah study is a great intellectual, spiritual and emotional delight. Therefore, the organizers who sought to spread their Tisha B’Av program throughout Israel named this new initiative Ha-Layla Lo Lomdim TorahTonight We Do Not Study Torah. They picked relevant themes relating to burning issues within Israeli society, and chose various panelists who would attract crowds. This brilliant marketing campaign caught the eyes of thousands of Israelis, who began to attend the Tisha B’Av symposiums, primarily in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

14 years later – this coming Monday night – there will be 26 Ha-Layla Lo Lomdim Torah symposiums throughout Israel! The panels will feature prominent members of Knesset, religious leaders, educators, religious and secular Israelis, men, women, young and old, Sephardi and Ashkenazi – all contemplating this year’s theme: Hashvil Ha-Zahav – The Golden Path. This refers to (appropriately) Maimonides’ teaching that in all matters in life, one should thrive to achieve the cherished “Golden Middle Path,” not veering to the extreme right or left. In light of the deep political and religious divisions in present-day Israel, this is a timely and needed discussion. 

In this week's Haftarah, the prophet Isaiah refers to the Jewish people in the lowest of terms: “Rulers of Sodom…People of Gomorrah” (Isaiah 1:10). Why would Isaiah use this awful metaphor? Sodom and Gomorrah represents the ultimate decadent society, totally void of morals and ethics. Pirkei Avot teaches “He who says ‘What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours’…this is the behavior of Sodom.” A selfish society where religious and political leaders are so corrupt that they don’t care about their own people, where neighbors don’t care about each other, and where the wealthy don’t care for the poor – such a society is doomed to destruction, like Sodom and Gomorrah. Unfortunately, this happened to the Jewish State twice. The organizers of Ha-Layla Lo Lomdim Torah seek to assure that the third Jewish state remains standing, vibrant and successful forever.

I have been privileged to attend these symposiums the past few years, and I plan on doing so again this coming Monday night. Such gatherings give me hope that – despite all of the ills that exist within Israeli society – we are beginning to see here the shades of Isaiah’s closing words from this week’s Haftarah: Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and those that return to her, with righteousness.

Israeli society is coming of age, and Maimonides would be very proud of what happens here on Tisha B’Av.