November 22, 2019

Weekly Parsha: Tisha B’Av

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

I don’t believe in animal sacrifice. Why should I care about Tisha b’Av?

Erica Rothblum
Head of School, Pressman Academy

We are taught that the Temples were destroyed because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred. Although I don’t believe in animal sacrifice, I do believe we need to spend Tisha b’Av reflecting on the role that sinat chinam plays in our world and creating intention to combat it through love. 

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Hate does not drive out hate; only love can do that.” While there are very few who walk around hating people for no reason — this is actually a sign of a psychopath — I do question whether our reasons for hating are always valid. Sometimes it is simply easier to hate than to love. 

It is easier to judge the mother whose children are acting out in public, to hate the boss whose leadership is shaky, or to vilify the intentions of someone we don’t know than it is to help, to provide compassion, to assume best intentions. Love takes effort. 

In Hebrew, the word “ahava” (love) stems from the root “hav,” to give. In order to love, we have to give. Love is not always easy and is not always natural; it is something in which we have to invest and work; only when we give can we love. So as we are mourning and fasting and praying, I wonder if we can also each make an intention to invest in loving someone and driving sinat chinam into the shadows of our world.

Havah Elisheva Jaffe
Children’s Shabbat Program Director, Hebrew Discovery Center

On Aug. 11, we remember the loss of the universal treasure of the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple. Why does Tisha b’Av matter to you and me, living in a world of technology and science? The Mishnah states that while the Temple stood in Jerusalem, 10 miracles continuously occurred, half of which were about korbanot (offerings): 1) no woman ever miscarried from the scent, 2) no sacrificial meat ever rotted, 3) no flies swarmed around the sacrifices, 4) the altar’s fire was never extinguished by rain, and 5) the smoke always rose straight to the heavens. 

How are we to yearn for sacrificial rituals involving herbivorous animals and produce? What is special about offering up our abundance? And why should animals suffer to atone for the shortcomings and misdeeds of humans? 

In fact, as with most things in Judaism, the opposite of our preconceptions is the truth. The Beit HaMikdash evidenced that people are no better than any of God’s other creations. Contrarily, without the ability to see animals as spiritual beings, we lose the ability to assume our proper role in the hierarchy of life. When we see cows as “livestock,” forests as “timber,” fish as “seafood,” and gardens as “crops,” we wander the earth in search of our purpose as servants of the Creator. Today, humans sacrifice our spiritual nature in favor of material security. Therefore, we rightfully mourn our inability to elevate the natural wonders we have been entrusted to take care of, until the Temple is rebuilt.

Rabbi Jason Rosner
Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park

Tisha b’Av is about more than animal sacrifices. Almost all of our other holidays had animal sacrifices attached to them in the Torah. Parashat Pinchas contains demands for livestock offerings on Shabbat that still are part of weekly prayers in many synagogues yet we do not propose discarding Shabbat on these grounds. 

This holiday is our moment when it is not only permitted, but meritorious to cry in public. We are not crying over lost animal sacrifices or ruined buildings — these are merely symbols. We are mourning for the people who inhabited them and their dashed hopes for a better world. 

On the ninth of Av, we not only commemorate the destruction of the first and second Jewish commonwealths with their Temples and sacrificial systems, but we also remember the Bar Kochba’s failed second-century revolt and the 17th-century false messiah Shabbatai Tzvi’s disastrous attempt to turn it into his birthday party. We mark the first crusade, the expulsion from Spain, the beginning of World War I and the Final Solution during the World War II. Each generation has used the holiday to commemorate their contemporary traumas through elegiac poetry and melancholy songs. Yet the holiday ends on a note of hope. After a long cry, a sense of relief comes, and with relief, renewed hope for a peaceful world to come.

Rabbi Tal Sessler
Sephardic Temple

We fast on Tisha b’Av in solidarity with those among us who were expelled from their homes, or dispossessed. 

We fast in remembrance of those who were baselessly imprisoned, or mock-executed, or actually executed. 

We fast in order to feel but a millionth of the immeasurable pain and anguish that our brothers and sisters in Europe felt when they were dehumanized beyond description, and starved and tortured and beaten to death, or buried alive, or gassed to death. 

We fast in undying solidarity, across time and space, with the countless martyrs of our people. 

And we also fast as an exercise in cosmic humility. Modern man at times errs by feeling invincible. We know not hunger. And with the new technologies, the world and all its know-how is literally at our fingertips. But as the great Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik brilliantly observed: “Man is finite, and so is his victory.” 

We fast in sacred protestation of the awesome and deadening gap between the superficiality of the image-based existence that we lead, and the life which God expects us to lead. 

We fast because of the glaring and excruciating dissonance between the inaptness of our external deeds, and the sacred murmur of our untarnished inner core. 

We fast because our soul is in exile, in metaphysical captivity, banished from its pristine origin in God Almighty. 

We fast in an effort to achieve an internal shift from the shackles of worldliness and egoism, into the promised lands of soulfulness and altruism.

Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld

Let’s be honest. How many of us truly mourn the destruction of the Temple? Yes, we break a glass under the chuppah but how many of us actually yearn for the Temple’s return? 

A Jewish magazine once posed a provocative question to a group of rabbis. They were asked whether they felt it was appropriate to establish a day to commemorate the Holocaust. In other words, despite the unparalleled scale and pain of that tragedy, doesn’t the singular marking of Yom HaShoah diminish the horrific suffering that Jews experienced during the crusades, the Inquisition, the pogroms, etc., all monumental tragedies that have no commemorative days? 

One rabbi’s answer deeply resonated with me. He opined that Yom HaShoah wasn’t necessary, we already have Tisha b’Av. 

Now, I don’t believe that this rabbi was troubled by the institution of Yom HaShoah or that he was questioning the noble motives of creating such a day. Instead, he was making an observation that reframed the way I looked at Tisha b’Av. To him, Tisha b’Av was the Yom HaShoah for all of Jewish history. It’s a day that recalls Jewish suffering and sacrifice. A day that reminds us of our eternal and heroic mission. A day that commemorates the profound price we pay for the privilege of being God’s ambassadors in the world. 

The Temple embodied this mission and its very air nourished and charged our souls. That loss of consciousness is something to mourn and its rekindling is something to yearn for.