A Time to Pause, Reflect, and Rebuild: Tisha B’Av in 2019 by Rabbi Danielle Upbin
When the topic of back-to-school supplies turned to bulletproof pack backs, I knew that my teenage sons had become citizens of a new world. We went as far as to research price and performance of these new “essential” items. This is the conversation that ensued:
The older one asked: “Will these really protect us from Semi-automatic weapons? The review just says handguns.”
The younger one retorted, “I don’t need a bullet- proof backpack. If there is a shooter, I am going to tackle him. I can take him down, don’t you think?”
“You wouldn’t”, he was corrected, “You would run in the opposite direction. you You will see how it goes in active shooter drills. The protocol is: Get off campus as quickly as possible. They train you to run away.”
“Or play dead.” I added. “That seems to be effective.”
We all agreed – don’t rush the shooter.
Back to school has a whole new layer of meaning.
For these I weep. (Lamentations 1:16)
We must weep. We must prevent ourselves from becoming numb to the fact that our children are coming of age in a time when mass shootings, hate speech, fear mongering and xenophobia are pervasive.
What can we do with our feelings of despair, anxiety and rage?
The Jewish calendar provides a space in which to contemplate and reflect upon our current events as well as the events of the past. Tisha B’Av or the 9th day of the month of Av is a dedicated day of national mourning that has been observed for thousands of years.
Even before there was a Temple, the Rabbis held that the 9th of Av was preordained to be a time of tragedy for the Jewish people. In the Bible, this was the day on which the twelve spies offered a negative report about conquering the land of Israel. Their profound display of mistrust in God’s power set off the forty year detour in the Wilderness (Numbers 13-14). “You wept without cause; I will, therefore, make this an eternal day of mourning for you (bechiya l’dorot). It was then decreed that on the 9th of Av, the Temple would be destroyed. (BT Ta’anit 29a).
Many other tragedies are recorded on this day in history. According to the Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:6), both Temples were destroyed – the First in 586 BCE by the hands of the Babylonians and the Second in 70 CE by the hands of the Romans. Bethar was captured (a Jewish insurrection against the Romans, and Jerusalem was ploughed up. In later history, the expulsion from England in 1290, the expulsion from Spain in 1492, the outbreak of WWI, many Pogroms in Eastern Europe, and the atrocities of Holocaust, all occurred at this time of year.
“Bitterly she weeps at night, her cheeks wet with tears. There is no one to comfort her of all her friends. Her allies have betrayed her; they have become her foes.” (Lamentations 1:2)
Observing the 9th of Av
These historical events have been etched in the psyche of the Jewish people. The destruction of the Temple transpired more than 2000 years ago. However, in all of Judaism’s wisdom, the events remains in our consciousness generation after generation. On the 9th of Av each year, we keep the memory alive through ritualized mourning. For 25 hours, we reflect on our history, contemplate our present, and brace ourselves for possible future outcomes. We gather in community to read the scroll of Lamentations and related dirges. We sit on the floors of our sanctuaries or homes, chanting the texts by flashlights. We digest the haunting words of Jeremiah, the perceived author of the text: “Her enemies are now the masters, Her foes are at ease…” (ibid. 1:3)
After the Temple was destroyed, the Talmud records a conversation among rabbis who were so traumatized by the events, they forsook music and entertainment, wine and meat. They were ready to give up all the pleasures of life in order to keep the memory aflame. But the thrust of Jewish history is to move forward. To rebuild. To remember, but not to become paralyzed by the past. And so our commemoration has become localized to a three week period of mourning which intensifies on the 9th of Av with fasting and abstaining from all pleasurable activities. Even the study of Torah is prohibited on this day.
Extending the Boundaries of the 9th of Av: Modern Terrorism
At times we may feel that we are still sitting among the broken stones. Adding to our historical awareness, our concern as Jews also extends to the State of Israel’s current safety and security. It is heart-breaking to hear about attempted terrorist attacks and murders.The persistent aggression on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict demonstrates that peace is no where in sight. Outside of Israel, we also have legitimate concerns. We are pained to witness terror attacks on Jews all over the world. The mass shootings this past year in Pittsburg and Poway keep our tears hot. Each time we hear of another mass shooting, no matter who the target is, we feel their pain.
“I have called on Your name. O Lord, from the depths of the pit. Hear my plea…” (ibid. 3:55)
The Divine Presence in Exile
On the 9th Av, we are reminded that the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, was exiled from Temple as well. The Midrash teaches that God is with us in Exile. God hears our cries. God is waiting for our return just as we await God’s.
The Divine Presence departed from the Holy of Holies of the Temple, after its destruction: “And the divine Presence kissed the walls and embraced the pillars, sighing, ‘farewell, o my house and my sanctuary! Farewell o my palace, o my dear home! Farewell to You!’ – Blessed be Your name, God, you who shall return the divine Presence unto Zion.” – Pesikta de Rav Kahana, 1868:
As we experience the 9th of Av this year, we have much to ponder with regard to the pain and suffering that persists – in the States, in Israel, and around the world. This is a time to pause, reflect, and formulate our own constructive solution. The prophet Isaiah insists (Isaiah 58:6) “This is not the kind of fasting I have chosen…” We are called upon to envision and work toward a better future – free from our enemies, free from bullet proof pack packs, bigotry, racism, and violence. There is something that each and everyone of us can do to be part of a solution.
An Antidote: Curtailing our Contempt
There is a well known teaching that the Second Temple fell, in part, on account of the baseless hatred (sinat chinam) that was prevalent at that time. The people of Jerusalem treated each other with contempt. Instead of standing strong against their enemies, their weakened community was susceptible to attack.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the philosopher and first Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi in British Mandate Palestine wrote regarding this:
If baseless hatred has the power to destroyed us, then we have the power to rebuild through baseless love (ahavat chinam). (Orot Ha’Kodesh 3:354)
We too, can redeem and be redeemed with baseless acts of love. There is something that each of us can begin to do this day to work toward a healthier, more positive community, family, self. Yes, the 9th of Av was preordained to be a time of mourning, but it was also preordained to be a time of future celebration. So powerful is this drive toward love and renewal, it is believed that in future days, the mourning aspect of the 9th of Av (and the related fast days) will be annulled, and these days will be a time to celebrate. What will be your part to make that a reality?
Help us to Return to You, and we shall return, renew our lives as in days of old. (Lamentations 5:21)
May we see the day when our love and respect for one another will outweigh our fear and contempt.
May we see the day when children will not fear for their lives as they go to school to learn.
May we see the day when these days of mourning are truly days of celebration.
May we see our way into a rebuilt Jerusalem, a rebuilt America, a more perfected world, paved with our good deeds and blessings from above.