The Jewish holiday cycle is filled with days of celebration and affirmation, times of great rejoicing and lovely songs and rituals. This time of year, however, our rituals are more serious and much sadder than usual. But there is a reason and a purpose to it all.
This weekend we commemorate Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the month of Av on the Jewish calendar, an important day of fasting and mourning in our tradition. This is the anniversary of the day on which both the first and second Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed, the greatest calamities our people ever experienced until the Holocaust. In addition, it is also the anniversary of the fall of Betar, ending the last great Jewish revolt against Rome by Bar Cochba in the year 135, and the traditional anniversary of the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain, fully in effect on this date in 1492.
For observant Jews of all denominations Tisha B’Av is a day of prayer, fasting, and introspection. We chant the beautiful, tremendously mournful book of Eychah, Lamentations, from the Bible and we recall the greatness of the Temple and its annihilation at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BCE and later by the Romans in 70 CE.
While today much of the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem has been rebuilt, there will always be spot in our hearts for the destroyed Temple, which we honor as part of the observance of Tisha B’Av.
When I have been in Jerusalem for the remembrance of Tisha B’Av I have found it to be both moving and surprising. Of course, the destruction took place in that very place, most specifically the area of the Kotel, the Western Wall, last remaining structure from the Second Temple. As you might expect, the chanting of the book of Lamentations, Eycha, is quite solemn and sad, as are the various dirges and lamentations that are sung and read. The historical descriptions of the events surrounding both the first and the second destructions, the churvan bayit rishon v’sheini are powerful and deeply affecting.
But each time I have been in Jerusalem on Tisha B’Av and gone to the Western Wall plaza to experience the night in the very place where it all happened I have been startled to find it filled with Orthodox young men and women with nothing else to do but, well, meet each other. That is, there are not distractions on Tisha B’Av—no food, no drink, no parties, no place else to be—and so it has become, at least in the general area of the long-lost Temple, a time for shiduchin, for young men and women to meet and flirt and try to find a mate.
To be honest I can’t think of a better way for Jews to affirm our survival and flourishing in the land of Israel, and in the holy city of Jerusalem, than for new couples to be made in the shadow of the Western Wall on Tisha B’Av.
While we are on the subject of Tisha b’Av, I started to think about Jerusalem and its nearly 3000 year-old connection to the Temple that stood at its heart. In truth, while the Temple stood for the majority of a millennium, fully a thousand years, it has now been absent from Jewish life, and from the holy city of Yerushalayim, for 1948 years, nearly twice as long as it stood. And while Orthodox Jews—and most Conservative Jews—pray for its restoration speedily and soon in every prayer service they hold, and in individual prayers, most liberal Jews and all secular Israelis see absolutely no possibility for it ever being rebuilt. In fact, it is quite unclear that most, or even many, Jews would wish to return to a biblical form of Judaism featuring ritual sacrifice and pilgrimages to the Temple and a cult of temple priesthood even if it were a real possibility—which it isn’t.
On the other hand, celebrating the greatness of the Temple in all its ancient glory, and theoretically wishing for a restoration of God’s presence to our midst are noble and appropriate goals for all Jews. The Temple symbolized what the High Priesthood embodied, lovers of peace and pursuers of peace. The blessing that the priests gave to one another as they came on and off shifts in the Temple is a great reminder of what each of us should seek in life: ahavah v’achvah shalom v’reiut, love, brotherhood, peace and friendship.
May the Temple be rebuilt speedily, in our day—but only in our hearts.
One additional thought about Tisha B’Av.
We are shaped by the collective experiences of our people, and remembrance is the first step towards understanding those experiences. As the Ba’al Shem Tov said, “Forgetfulness leads to Exile, while Remembrance is the secret of redemption.” If Passover is the history feast, Tisha B’Av is the history fast.
We do well to remember the reasons that tradition attributes for the destruction of the two temples. The first, the rabbis tell us, was destroyed because of idolatry, and the worship of false gods. But the second was destroyed as the result of Sinat Chinam, baseless hatred of one Jew for another. In other words, we allowed our internal disputes to fester, and to destroy Jewish unity. Where we have always had respectful disagreements—and many of them—in the search of the truth and of justice, we instead turned to pure hostility of one Jew towards another.
This remains a powerful lesson today. When our community differs on substantive issues we must always remember that we are one people. Disagreement is natural and healthy. Hatred, vituperation, and attacking the integrity of the individual are not.
Tisha B’Av reminds us of the dangers of this sort of situation, and its consequences in the past. And we often need just that sort of reminder to move us back to the proper path.
May we come to understand the higher value of being part of the greater people of Israel, Am Yisrael, on this day of fasting and remembering.