On Tisha B’Av – The 9th day of the Month of Av

by Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor

Jewish life is the life of the mind – study is the very core of our continued existence since Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai founded the first Academy after the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70 CE.  Jewish life is the life of the spirit – as study should lead to the performance of mitzvot, through action we often find meaning.  But more than anything, Judaism is deeply psychological, it is the development of the human spirit in search of the Divine – but it is rooted in the human psyche and meant to care for the human psyche.

Examples abound: 

  • Shabbat is a day devoted to physical rest after a week of labor, but the physical rest should lead us to understand ourselves.  We are not slaves, we have agency, we determine that we define the work, work does not define us.
  • Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.  One would think that we should prepare for the entrance of the New Year by making amends for sins of the year about to end.  Even though we should take the whole month of Elul to practice making amends, we don’t get it done, we anticipate the turning of the calendar.  So, we welcome the New Year, and then vow to make it better by starting out the year in intense introspection for the first ten days leading to the Day of Atonement.
  • Death and Mourning.  Long before Elizabeth Kubler-Ross published her ground-breaking book “On Death and Dying” which outlined 5 stages of emotions when dealing with death, Jewish tradition mandated stages of marking death and mourning – death, burial, shiva, shloshim and yahrzeit.  Each stage helping us to embrace the passing of a loved one and moving back towards normalcy.
  • Darkness and Light.  On the longest day of darkness, we celebrate a festival of lights – Hanuka come to bring light when most of us experience the gloom of days with little natural sunlight.

And so we come to Tisha B’Av. When we look back over history, our history is littered with horrific experiences, devastating events that cost human lives and caused us to question our faith.  If we had to memorialize each of these events, there would not be enough days in the year to commemorate every tragedy that has befallen our people.  The Mishna (Taanit 4:6) lists five events that were supposed to have occurred on the 9th of Av that warranted fasting: 1) The report of the 10 spies who looked at the Promised Land and said that our people would not be able to conquer it; 2) the destruction of the First Temple by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BCE which began the Babylonian Exile; 3) the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE; 4) The Romans crushed Bar Kochba’s revolt and destroyed the town of Betar and killed 500,000 in 135 CE; 5) The Romans plowed over the site of the Temple in 135 CE.  Those alone were reason enough to declare a day of fasting, but the rabbis knew that it would be better to aggregate all tragedies into one day. So we add in the First Crusades (1096), the expulsion of the Jews from England (1290), the expulsion of the Jews from France (1306), the expulsion of the Jews from Spain (1492), Germany entering World War I (1914), the Holocaust, the AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires (1994), the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza (2005).

The day is a full fast day, so one is prohibited from eating and drinking, washing or bathing, wearing perfumes, wearing leather shoes and having sexual relations.  The Book of Lamentations (Eicha) is traditionally read in the afternoon, and some Sephardic Jews will also read the Book of Job in the morning.

Twenty years ago, on a secular kibbutz, sandwiched between the Lebanese border and the Golan Heights, I had a late-night discussion over drinks with our young Israeli tour guide who was helping me lead a tour of Israel. This late-night discussion took place on the evening prior to Tisha B’Av – which figures prominently in the Jewish calendar and yet has been virtually forgotten within the liberal Jewish community outside of Israel, because it falls during the summer.   The following evening, Tisha B’Av would fall and I was in Israel leading a tour of Americans.  I felt it was important to have some sort of service and yet I couldn’t figure out what the nature of that service might be.  I had a discussion with our Israeli guide, who had been raised in a traditional Jewish home, and discussed how we might make Tisha B’Av relevant to our American Jewish tourists who had probably never experienced Tisha B’Av.  But ultimately this conversation focused not on the members of the group but on ourselves.  I was truly at a loss to find some true relevance for us.

I have always tried to define Judaism based upon the joy that Jewish life and tradition enables us to discover.  And I felt uncomfortable with another day that marked our tragedies.  Daniel, our young guide, having lived the better part of his adult life in Israel, understood the day as a day of national mourning and an expression of profound loss.  Late into the evening we debated.

In the end, what was created, I believe, was a remarkably moving and profound event in which we recreated our discussion and our debate with the group and asked our members to find where they might find relevance in commemorating Tisha B’Av.  It was then we had our young friend and guide, Daniel, chant selections from Eicha – the Book of Lamentations — in which our Jewish ancestors, sitting by the shores of the river in Babylon, wept for the loss that they experienced through their forced expulsion from the Holy Land.  We concluded with a brief service – it was profound, it was moving, it was relevant and it was deeply Jewish.

So what did we mourn?  What was the loss?  It is simply this: at one time our people had and held Jerusalem and in the center of that enchanted city stood a place – a building – that tied us together as one people, no matter where we lived.  The Temple was ultimately our focus.  It was to the Temple we brought our offerings.  It was at the Temple that our greatest prayers rose towards the heavens.  It was in the Temple that the center of Jewish life was most vibrant.  Whether sitting in a kibbutz bar or here on Nantucket it is impossible not to feel that even though Jews around the world are tied to one another, the ties that bind us have been weakened over the centuries as the center of our Jewish life — built and destroyed, rebuilt and destroyed again — no longer exists.  And yet ultimately the Temple that once stood in Jerusalem was merely a symbol for something more profound that bound us together.  What truly bound us together was our way of life and our sense of identity. 

Tisha B’Av, that singular sad day in the Jewish calendar, reminds us that no matter where we are, so long as we still identify as part of the Jewish People, those tragedies only strengthened us and gave us resolve never to let others take our history or identity from us.  And thank God, it is only one day.   And by limiting it to one day, we can handle it.

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