What is Tisha B’Av?
The nine days preceding Tisha B’Av (the 9th of Av) are traditionally filled with narratives of the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, the subsequent exile of the Jewish people to the Diaspora, and the hope of the elder generation (parents and grandparents) that the next generation would be able to one day return to their homeland.
Prior to the founding of the modern state of Israel, the story of the Jewish people and their hope of returning to sovereignty in their land became tangible in this wonderful tradition in which a grandparent, over the course of nine days, would gather all of their grandchildren in their home to tell the stories of destruction that were found in the Talmud. On the one hand, accounts of the destruction are very difficult and not necessarily appropriate for children, but on the other hand, they carry with them important values, such as mutual responsibility and eradicating the phenomenon of senseless hatred which, according to Jewish tradition, led to the destruction of the Second Temple.
Traditionally the Book of Lamentations is chanted on Tisha B’Av. It is a record of the horrors inflicted on the Israelites during 586 BCE, when the Babylonians conquered the land and destroyed the First Temple. The theological lesson is straightforward: G-d inflicted this punishment because the people of Israel were sinful. Many rabbis during the talmudic period described the destruction as a result of “the hiding of G-d’s face.” Traditional Jewish theology holds that if Israel faces its wrongdoing and repents, G-d will restore at least a remnant to Israel’s rightful place. Most modern Jews no longer see a connection between human wrongdoing and cosmic punishment. Despite these theological differences between traditional and contemporary Jews, we still need to confront and remember the reality of the losses of the Jewish people and mourn them. Remembering our history, mourning our losses, and resolving to fight the forces united against us make the observance of Tisha B’Av a powerful and necessary annual day of observance.
The early Reform movement did not observe Tisha B’Av because they saw the destruction and exile as necessary to fulfill the destiny of the Jewish people — to disperse throughout the world and bring the Jewish vision of ethical monotheism to all humanity.
Some Jewish thinkers have suggested that with the re-establishment of the state of Israel, Tisha B’Av need no longer be observed and that we should leave the mourning for the loss of Jewish sovereignty in the past. But there remain many good reasons to observe Tisha B’Av. The observance addresses the pain and suffering that flows from avoidable cruelty that still exists among society and among nations, as well as from the flaws in contemporary social systems that prevent many from experiencing personal liberty and social justice. The advent of the modern state of Israel has not ushered in the coming of the messiah and Israel is still far from achieving its vision of justice, plenty and peace. We still have much to mourn on Tisha B’Av, and there is much to improve upon.
According to the Talmud, during the Babylonian era, the sin that caused the destruction of the Second Temple was “baseless hatred among Jews.” The rabbis viewed this as an egregious offense. One element of Tisha B’Av’s observance is a concern with the way we treat those around us, both in speech and action. Tisha B’Av is an occasion to contemplate the interactions between individuals and those around them. There are infinite ways in which we can treat each other well as well as harm each other. However, the rabbis taught that transgression is not only a question of action. The destructive ill feelings toward others that we carry around in our hearts are just as important to consider and become aware of. These feelings are corrosive to the person who has them, and they leak out, causing damage to others in unintended ways.
The Israelite corruption described by the prophets in the Bible was not only personal, it was a national phenomenon. Many of the problems the world currently faces — hunger caused by war and environmental abuse, homelessness resulting from the dismantling of governmental safety nets, a lack of essential healthcare due to the unfair distribution of resources, business and government corruption driven by greed and lust for power — are similar to the corruption of the Biblical nation of Israel. Although we may not fear divine retribution, we have reason to fear the actions of our governments, nations, corporations, and malicious groups. Tisha B’Av provides us with an opportunity to confront these issues and to resolve to take action on a daily basis to make things better. Those who observe Tisha B’Av today face the challenge of moving beyond ritual for its own sake in order to motivate those around them to make significant changes in their personal lives and to act for the good of society, particularly around the issue of baseless hatred.
Observing Tisha B’Av Through Action
A key lesson from the prophets is that regular religious practice leads to ethical living. The failure involved in observing religious rituals while shirking moral responsibility is a central focus of Tisha B’Av. When the observance of Tisha B’Av consists only of fasting and prayer, it fails to address this core concern. What do ethical actions look like? A congregation could organize volunteer projects aimed at feeding those in need and housing the homeless, or at supporting civil rights through action and donation. The congregation could host a symposium or learning session on social issues that directly affect the community. If individuals cannot bring their congregations to undertake such ethical actions, those individuals can act on their own..
One of the questions that arise is whether the beneficiaries of our tzedakah and social action should be limited to Jews or to one’s community as a whole. While the tragedies marked by Tisha B’Av are all focused on Jews, the message of Tisha B’Av is far broader. Mourning our losses should inspire us to become co-creators of a world where no one experiences such pain and suffering. Focusing our response too narrowly, that is, solely on the Jewish community, may well involve the sin of furthering baseless hatred. The rabbis often expressed the hope that the end of Tisha B’Av would mark the beginning of messianic days, and it is up to us to bring them about. The fast we are asked to keep is one that protects the helpless, feeds the hungry, and frees those who have yet to attain their freedom. Mourning what is lost should inspire us to build a better future for our world.
From observing Tisha B’Av we can see that the historical memory is intended to one day be revived through the legends themselves, passed on through the generations, and in the teaching methods designed to embed this memory. It is in the stories told by parents and grandparents to their children, and in the act of instilling hope that they may someday return to their land. It is an observance intended to reflect on the sorrow over the past destruction of Jewish sovereignty and anticipation of reinstating it in the future.
Those who wish to understand the great miracle of the Jewish people’s survival over the last few generations will look to the entwined patterns of mourning and hope on Tisha B’av, a day which, despite its seemingly minor place in the Jewish calendar, is very central in our lives.