Today is a day for crying.
Today is the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, Tisha b’Av, the day when many tragedies befell our people. Today we commemorate so much death and destruction in Jewish History. Even if historically, not every tragedy fell on the ninth day of Av, we set this day aside, to cry, to fast and to remember that every day is not a day of celebration.
I know that sometimes is seems that every day is a day of tragedy in Jewish History. Isn’t that the joke on the Internet: “They attacked. We won. Let’s eat!” That is the essence of Hanukah, Purim, Yom HaShoa, Yom HaAtzmaut, Yom Yerushalayim and clearly, Tisha b’Av. Maybe Passover fits this model too. But all those other days are not fast days. Why is this day, the ninth of Av, called the “black fast” (in contrast to Yom Kippur, the “white fast”)?
At the study session I was at last night the Rabbi asked what I thought was a pretty interesting question. Today is the day that we commemorate the destruction of the first and second Temple in Jerusalem. The Sages ask the question, “Why was the Temple destroyed?” Rabbi Ettedgui of Minneapolis last night asked us, “Why do we ask about the Temple? Why not ask why Jerusalem was destroyed or why was Israel destroyed or why were our people sent into exile? The easy answer is that the Temple was the heart and soul of the Jewish people at that time. Its destruction implies all the other tragedies of the day.
But if Tisha b’Av is all about the Temple alone, it would not have survived all the centuries as the darkest day on the Jewish calendar. We have moved on without the Temple. Service of the Heart (prayer) has replaced the sacrificial service of the Temple. It is very rare today to find Jews of any denomination really advocating the rebuilding of the Temple. Orthodox Jews are content to wait for God or the Messiah to rebuild it. For most of the other denominations, it is just a vestige in our prayers. We remember what our ancestors USED to do in the Temple, but we are not interested in doing it ourselves. For most Jews, Tisha b’Av is about the destruction of Jerusalem. It is about the end of Jewish independence for over 2000 years. It is about the hope that sustained our people that someday we would once again, be free in our own land.
Today we are free in that land. Today, there is a living state of Israel with Jerusalem as its capital. The Midrash says that as the Temple burned, the ancient priests threw the keys to the city up in the air where a Divine hand grabbed them and took them up to heaven. In 1948, the British gave the keys to Zion gate into the hands of the Rabbis of the Old City, in the days before it fell to the Jordanians. Today, the entire city of Jerusalem is under control of the State of Israel. So what meaning should Tisha b’Av have for modern Jews?
I believe that there are two meanings to this day. First, it remains important to mark the many misfortunes that befell the Jewish People on this day. The Talmud indicates that this was the day the spies gave their evil report of the land and the people cried that they would not enter. For this lack of trust in God, the Holy One decreed that since they cried that night without reason, God would give them a reason to cry. That was the night they were all doomed to die in the desert and only their children would inherit the land. This was also the date of the destruction of the first and second Temples, and the day that Betar, the last stronghold of the Bar Kochba rebellion, was captured. It was also the day the Romans ploughed up the city of Jerusalem so that it would never be rebuilt. Later history includes many disasters on the ninth of Av. Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and from Spain in 1492 and from Vienna in 1670. Three thousand Jews died in the Chmielnikcki massacres on this day. Even World War I began on Tisha b’Av, a war that made refugees of thousands of Jews. In 1942 the Nazis ordered the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest ghetto under Nazi control.
But second, we need to acknowledge the different status of Jerusalem and the Jewish People in our modern time. We are now a free people living in our own land. In spite of all the problems, it remains not only a homeland for our dispersed people, but Israel is also the defender of Jews all over the world. From Iraq to Entebbe to Argentina, Israel has been there to see to it that Jews are not persecuted anymore in any corner of the globe. From the time that Israel came into existence, we were no longer a wandering, homeless people. Like it or not, as Rabbi Daniel Gordis writes, we Jews have our own platform on the world stage, a platform that we have missed for the 2000 years of our exile.
I believe therefore that the “black fast” of Tisha b’Av needs to be shortened. We should read Aicha (Lamentations) and Kinot (elegies) and the mandated readings from the Torah for this day. But when we are finished, after Mincha, after about 2 pm in most places, it is time to break our fast in recognition of how far we have come since those days of insecurity and upheaval. We acknowledge our past with our fast, and take note of our present by breaking our fast early. We have tradition and, in the face of our new situation we effect an appropriate change. We fast to commemorate the darkness, and break the fast so that we can dwell in the light.
There comes a time when our crying must end. There is still much to cry about on Tisha b’Av, but there is also a modern Israel in which we should find joy. Tisha b’Av should be about both.