In those heady days of ‘sixty-seven, when
the exiled city was redeemed
to nestle in our outstretched hands
we kissed its dusty timeworn stones
and whispered fervent prayers, as tears
of joy splashed down on rugged streets.
We fantasized that Tisha B’Av
might shift from fast to feast
and lamentations would be rendered obsolete.
But we did not heed the echoes
of conflicts from the past, sighing
through the light-splashed alleyways
nor see the legion fissures
that rend a broken world.
For if the Temple was destroyed
because of baseless hate
where is the unfounded love
to heal those ancient wounds?
In an article from the website of the American Jewish Committee entitled, Tisha B’Av: Shall We Continue Mourning for Zion?, http://www.ajc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=7oJILSPwFfJSG&b=8449821&ct=12484945, Rabbi Noam E. Marans notes that more-or-less from earliest times, the fast of Tisha b’Av which commemorates the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE and the Second Temple in 70 CE, has engendered debate as to whether it should be a permanent fixture in the Jewish calendar. He points out that several decades after the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, the prophet Zechariah was asked whether Jews should continue to observe Tisha B’Av and other fast days that involve mourning its destruction. He cites the interchange: “In the fourth year of King Darius, on the fourth day of the ninth month, Kislev, the word of the Lord came to Zechariah when Bethel-sharezer and Regem-melech and his men sent to entreat the favor of the Lord and to address this inquiry to the priests of the House of the Lord and to the prophets: “Shall I weep and practice abstinence in the fifth month, as I have been doing all these years?” ” (Zechariah 7: 1-3). Rabbi Marans observes that although it is not clear who is inquiring, the question itself certainly is clear: given the new circumstances – the return to Zion – should the mourning practices be continued?
The Soncino commentary notes that before responding, “the prophet expounds the doctrine that fasting as such is devoid of spiritual worth. God is indifferent to fasts; what He demands is the moral life which manifests itself in brotherly love and social justice. This was the teaching of the earlier prophets which the former generations had ignored and experienced misfortune in consequence.” (Zechariah 7:5-14). Finally Zechariah answers the question directly: “And the word of the Lord of hosts came to me, saying, Thus said the Lord of Hosts: The fast of the fourth month, the fast of the fifth month, the fast of the seventh month, and the fast of the tenth month shall become occasions for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah; but you must love honesty and integrity.” (Zechariah 8:18-19). Zechariah is telling the people that if they practise morality, fast days will become festivals and the sadness of the past will be forgotten. In the meantime, though, he is not rescinding them.
Rabbi Marans continues that in the event, the place of Tisha B’Av was consolidated as the “focal point for commemorating many tragic events in Jewish history. By 200 C.E. the Mishna included five events associated with the date of Tisha B’Av: the Divine decree prohibiting the adult population liberated from Egypt from entering the Land of Israel; the destruction of the First and Second Temples; the plowing over of Jerusalem after the First Temple destruction; and the squelching of the Bar Kokhba rebellion at Betar. Later generations noted that Tisha B’Av also coincided with the expulsion of the last Jews from Spain in 1492 and the outbreak of World War I, among other tragedies.”
Nearly 2,500 years later with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the debate resurfaced as it seemed that the prophecies of Zechariah and others had come true. Religious Zionists in the nascent Jewish state described it as “reishit tzemichat geulateinu – the harbinger of our redemption.” As in Zechariah’s time, some felt that the return to Zion had removed the need to mourn it.
Rabbi Marans continues that while the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 sparked the debate about the observance of Tisha B’Av as a day of mourning, the Six-Day War in 1967 ignited it. In the years between 1948 and 1967, the holiest site, the Western Wall, the base of the Temple mount, had been off-limits to the Jewish people. This was where the first tragedies of Tisha B’Av had occurred, and in the hardest battle of that miraculous 1967 war, it was restored to the people. Jerusalem was reunited. He says, “In a stunning response to nearly two millennia of longing, thousands of Jews flocked to Jerusalem to celebrate. Not since the days of Zechariah had the question of Tisha B’Av’s relevance been so starkly raised.”
He notes that although there have been attempts to add a modern dimension to Tisha B’Av by connecting it to the Holocaust which preceded the establishment of the state, this concept did not really take hold, and the Holocaust is commemorated on a day of its own – Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Rabbi Marans believes that if Tisha B’Av does not resonate – even though its gloom may be alleviated as we cannot but rejoice in the flourishing of the state of Israel – it points to a misguided “naïve idealism untempered by the lessons of history” similar to that displayed by those early questioners of the prophet Zechariah.
He concludes that Tisha B’Av is as relevant today as it was in the past. While the course of Jewish history has been irrevocably altered, he notes, since the founding of the state of Israel, he adds that “the generation of Zechariah had also prematurely assumed their troubles had ceased. Jerusalem today is indeed crowded with boys and girls playing in its squares, but the days of our mourning have not yet come to an end.”
In an article entitled, “Recollection of a Tisha B’Av Shiur given by the Rav” http://ou.org.s3.amazonaws.com/images/oupress/Kinot%20reflections.pdf, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein recalls visiting Israel in August 1967, in order to experience the aftermath of the miraculous Six Day War. He arrived with his wife in Tel Aviv on Erev Tisha B’Av, in time to eat the pre-fast meal and attend Rabbi Shlomo Goren’s synagogue for the Tisha B’Av night service. He remembers, “The mood in Israel was anything but Tisha B’Av-like. There was simply no feeling of mourning or sadness. On the contrary, there was a feeling of exhilaration, confidence, excitement and redemption. It was clear that Israelis were in no mood to observe or even to feel the sadness and mourning of Tisha B’Av. The service proceeded rather routinely, Rabbi Goren read Eikha and then the congregation began the first of the Lamentations. They got through about half of the stanzas and then they stopped, and everyone proceeded to leave shul. The mood of the country was one of liberation and redemption with people feeling that they had been saved from, God forbid, a second Holocaust and with the sensation that not only were we saved, but that the State of Israel had expanded its territory perhaps threefold and its holiest sites were back in our hands; all of this because of the hatred and mistakes of intractable foes. How could one feel depressed and mournful on that Tisha B’Av?” He reports, though, that he and his wife were disturbed, feeling that this reaction on the saddest day of the year was somehow inappropriate. However, some months later, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, delivered a memorable shiur, which, he says, addressed his dilemma. He says, “The Rav asked: How can one mourn for events that occurred 2,000 and 2,500 years ago? Tisha B’Av marks the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem in 586 BCE and 70 CE. They are historic events, long gone from memory. How are we able to sit shiva on Tisha B’Av, night and morning, for events that occurred twenty centuries ago? If a close relative of ours had died and we didn’t learn about it until after thirty days, there would be no formal shiva. We would sit shiva symbolically for an hour and then get up and go about our business. How then, can we sit down on the ground for an event that happened two millennia ago?”
Rabbi Soloveitchik gave three answers to that question.
The first response notes that the Jewish approach to all of our history is to reframe it as a contemporary experience. Thus, on Seder night, we proclaim, “Bekhol dor, in every generation, each person must feel as if he himself has now emerged from Egypt.” The exodus is to be reframed as a contemporary experience. We are enjoined to feel as though we were enslaved and have now been redeemed, and we therefore drink the four cups of wine, we recline and we recite Hallel. On Shavuot, we stand during the reading of the Ten Commandments, in a shul often decorated with greenery, as though we are standing at Mount Sinai. On Sukkot, we dwell in temporary booths as the Children of Israel did in the desert. So it is with Tisha B’Av. We sit down on the ground as if the Temple is burning now, Jerusalem has been razed, and the Jews dispersed or slaughtered.
The Rav concluded his first answer by citing from the Jerusalem Talmud that there is a parallel saying to Pesach’s concept of “Bekhol dor” on Tisha B’Av: “Every generation in which the Temple has not been rebuilt is like the generation in which it was destroyed.” This is not mourning for something that happened millennia ago; it is mourning for what happened just now.”
The Rav’s second answer to the relevance today of an event that occurred so long ago derives from his analysis of the Rambam’s conclusion that Tisha B’Av was actually observed during the period of the Second Temple. Rabbi Lookstein says that “the Rav then asks the obvious question, “How could they mourn for the First Temple when the Second Temple stood in all its glory? How could the Kohanim bring the daily sacrifice and then sit down on the ground to recite kinot? Are not the two experiences mutually exclusive?” He continues that the Rav noted that it would have been absurd for the Kohanim and the Levi’im to effect all the daily rituals in the Second Temple on Tisha B’Av and then mourn for the First Temple. However, he surmised that if they observed it, it would have been in prayer, that the destruction would not recur. So Rabbi Lookstein says, “The people were terrified that history would repeat itself and that the destruction that came 600 years before would happen again. And, tragically, it did happen again.” So the day is spent to be spent not only in mourning but also in prayer that we be saved from such a tragedy recurring.
In a current article on Tisha B’Av by Amichai Lau-Lavie, http://amichai.me/fasting-forward-why-im-looking-forward-to-this-years-tisha-bav/4231, he quotes the reply he gave to the question of why he fasts: “The temple is only one layer of what it’s about. For me it’s more of an invitation to focus on what’s broken in the world…It’s not just about the history of the destruction of the temples and the loss of all those innocent lives. It’s about broken hearts and homes everywhere, fasting to focus on the parts of life we rarely want to: Our scars of violence and abuse and suffering and exiles, often in the name of God; and for every time I and others choose more hate and fear over trust and love. I fast because hunger humbles, reminding me of being in the body, and this is a great Jewish tool for mindfulness and deeper connection with what matters most…”
He adds, “And also, more recently for me – it’s become the first day of the sacred season of the Days of Awe – we fast on Tisha B’av and then again on Yom Kippur and in between we move on in and up and focus on what needs fixing in our lives and how to do it better.”
In his book, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared: the Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, Rabbi Alan Lew reminds us that Tisha B’Av precedes Rosh Hashana by exactly seven weeks, beginning the process that culminates on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, in essence beginning the process of Teshuvah, the process of returning to ourselves and to God. This, he says, “is the time between the destruction of Jerusalem – the crumbling of the walls of the Great Temple – and our own moral and spiritual reconstruction…the walls come down and suddenly we can see, suddenly we recognize the nature of our estrangement from God, and this recognition is the beginning of our reconciliation…
He continues the theme by articulating some of the questions that Tisha B’Av asks us, about where we are in our lives, what we are walling out and whether we are capable of moving from a state of siege to a state of openness, to a state of truthfulness, especially with ourselves. He says, “The walls of our soul begin to crumble and the first glimmers of transformation – of Teshuvah – begin to seep in. We turn and stop looking beyond ourselves,. We stop defending ourselves. We stop blaming bad luck and circumstances and other people for our difficulties. We turn in and let the walls fall.
“Our suffering, the unresolved element in our lives, is also from God. It is the instrument by which we are carried back to God, not something to be defended against, rather to be embraced. And this embrace begins here on Tisha B’Av, seven weeks before Rosh Hashanah, so that by the Ten Days of Teshuvah, we are ready for transformation. We can enter the present moment of our lives and consciously alter that moment. We can end our exile.
“We can step outside our walls and feel the full force of the great tidal pulls on our body and our soul; sun and moon, inhale and exhale, life and death, the walls building up and the walls crumbling down again.”
In a current commentary on his blog, entitled Existential threats and free-flowing hatred, http://www.rebjeff.com/blog/existential-threats-and-free-flowing-hatred?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+RebJeff+%28Reb+Jeff%29, Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser places Tisha B’Av this year against the backdrop of the furious debate within the Jewish community concerning America’s proposed agreement with Iran, and the threat this might pose to the existence of Israel.
He notes that the tone of the rhetoric on both sides of the debate within the community has become increasingly irrational and hate-filled, with the word “traitor” emanating from both sides.
He says, “The ancient rabbis, too, considered the possibility that the Jewish people faced a threat that would destroy them and drive the remnant of survivors from their land. In fact, that is exactly what happened to them. The rabbis lived in a time when the armies of Rome conquered Jerusalem, burned down the Temple, and exiled the Jewish people from the city that was the center of their spiritual existence.
“Now that is a real “existential threat.” He notes that in “Megillat Eicha – The Book of Lamentations,” that is read on the night of Tisha B’Av, we read of the horrors perpetrated on the innocent in the destruction of the First Temple, while Josephus the historian describes similar barbarities at the time of the Second Temple’s destruction.
But, he adds, ” … unlike today’s commentators, the ancient rabbis did not locate the threat to their existence in the intentions and actions of their enemies. They saw it within themselves. They saw the cause of their suffering, not in their foreign adversaries, but in the way they treated each other.
“In the Talmud, the rabbis ask, “Why was the First Temple destroyed?” And they answer, “Because of three things which prevailed there: idolatry, immorality and bloodshed.” They ask, “Why was the Second Temple destroyed, seeing that in its time the Jewish people were studying Torah, performing mitzvot, and giving charity?” And they answer, “Because of free-flowing hatred [of one Jew against another]. This teaches that free-flowing hatred is of the same gravity as the sins of idolatry, immorality and bloodshed combined” (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 9b).”
Reb Jeff notes that certainly the state of Israel is surrounded by real enemies who wish her nothing but harm, but he says, “… while we allow the rhetoric of our debate to become more and more toxic – we are doing our enemies’ dirty work for them…
“In a few week’s time, the United States Congress will vote on the President’s proposed multinational agreement intended to slow or stop Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. I don’t know whether that is a good thing or not. I am not an expert on arms control. I do expect, though, that until that vote is taken, the Jewish community will suffer more pangs of accusations and anger – one Jew against another – that will damage our community and the very idea of k’lal Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people…”
He adds, “My plea on this darkest day of the Jewish year is simple. Listen to our tradition. Understand what the rabbis meant when they said that the uncurbed enmity of one Jew against another is as bad as idolatry, immorality and bloodshed combined. They believed that our self-directed anger and hatred would ultimately lead us to worship our own opinions, to rape the foundations of civility, and to kill the love that unites us as a people…”
And finally, in an editorial of the Jewish Week from 2012, entitled The Ongoing Relevance Of Tisha b’Av,
http://www.thejewishweek.com/editorial-opinion/editorial/ongoing-relevance-tisha-bav, the author notes that especially since the unification of Jerusalem in 1967, Tisha b’Av has seemed irrelevant to some. He [she?] adds, “…despite this city’s renaissance, even in the ecstasy after its unification, Tisha b’Av has retained its hold on our souls and imagination. The Shoah-like story of Lamentations and the commencement of the exile, with its unparalleled millennia of suffering, would be reason enough to fast and mourn. Even today, any reading of a Jewish newspaper would clearly show that we are still in exile, if not from our land than from our truest selves…
“Our Lamentations conclude with the prayer that our days be restored, as of old, and in many ways they have, but no one really thinks the restoration is complete. That is our job, beginning the morning after.”