For many years, Tisha B’Av was off the radar of the modern-day Israeli narrative. Many Israelis viewed the ancient fast day as an antiquated observance lacking contemporary relevance. Some argued that Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron are the “new Israeli Tisha B’Av,” and – especially after Jerusalem was reunited in 1967 – the on-going mourning over Jerusalem seemed outdated.
Despite these feelings, beginning this coming Saturday night and lasting through Sunday night, millions of Jews around the world – including here in Israel (where I am for the summer) - will observe the fast day mourning the destruction of both Temples that once stood in Jerusalem. Why do we continue to fast and mourn on Tisha B’Av?
In his introduction to the Book of Genesis, the Netziv (19thCentury Rosh Yeshiva & Rabbinic Scholar) provides a powerful description of what happened on Tisha B’Av:
The Jewish community of the Second Temple period was a crooked and perverse generation. True, they were Tsadikim (righteous) and Hasidim (pious), and amongst them lived many great Torah scholars. However, they were not Yesharim (upright and just) in their daily conduct towards one another. Therefore, as a result of the deeply rooted Sinat Hinam (baseless hatred) towards each other, each person looked upon his own religious behavior as being the only legitimate form of religiosity, and whoever did not believe or behave according to that form of religiosity was labeled a heretic. This perverse form of thinking led to zealotry, murder and the deepest divisiveness within the Jewish community.
This negative behavior is also reflected in the special Haftarah (Prophetic portion) that we read this week. The Haftarah is taken from the opening chapter of the Book of Isaiah, which opens with the words “Hazon Yeshayahu” – “The Vision of Isaiah” – hence the name of this special pre-Tisha B’Av Shabbat is “Shabbat Hazon.” In this Haftarah, Isaiah had a vision of doom, where, in a metaphoric fashion, he named the Jewish people “Rulers of Sodom” and “People of Gomorrah” (Isaiah 1:10). Why would Isaiah use this metaphor? Sodom and Gomorrah represents the ultimate in a decadent society, totally void of morals and ethics. Pirkei Avot teaches “He who says ‘What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours’…this is the behavior of Sodom.” A selfish society where leaders don’t care about their people, where neighbors don’t care about each other, where the wealthy don’t care for the poor – such a society is doomed to destruction, like Sodom. Unfortunately, this happened to the Jewish State twice.
In the Mishneh Torah (Code of Jewish Law), Maimonides takes this historical narrative one step further:
There are days when the entire Jewish people fast because of the calamities that occurred to them then, in order to arouse their hearts and initiate them in the paths of repentance (teshuva).This will serve as a reminder of our own wicked conduct and that of our ancestors, which resembles our present conduct, and therefore brought these calamities upon them and upon us. By reminding ourselves of these matters, we will repent and improve our conduct.
Maimonides teaches that on Tisha B’Av, we are not only mourning the actual loss of the Temples, but are lamenting and reflecting upon our poor behavior that led to the destruction of both Temples.
Is there a remedy to our own ills? If our own poor decisions and negative actions launched and extended the darkness of Tisha B’Av, can we also help create the light at the end of this seemingly endless dark tunnel?
Maimonides emphasizes that the power of Tisha B’Av is when we conduct a moral check-up of the state of internal affairs in the Jewish world. In addition to fasting and reading the Book of Lamentations and Kinot, we must also conduct symposiums on what’s happening in our own Jewish communities today. But does this happen? Are Jewish communities willing to search deep within to see what requires “tikkun” (repair)?
One Jewish community is willing to do this. It’s name: Israel.
On November 4, 1995, when an Israeli Jew pulled the trigger on his own prime minister, Israelis were shocked into understanding the timeless message of Tisha B’Av. The concept of Sinat Hinamwas alive and present in Israeli society, and had now reached its low point.
On the first Tisha B’Av after Rabin’s assassination, a group of young Israelis – religious and secular – decided to get together and hold a symposium on what was going wrong in Israeli society. In light of Rabin’s assassination and the deep polarization it reflected within Israeli society, it was time to bring Tisha B’Av and its lessons of Sinat Hinamback into the discourse of Israeli society.
Every subsequent Tisha B’Av, the small group grew in size, until one person had the brilliant idea of turning this symposium into a nationwide Tisha B’Av program. This idea succeeded due to a brilliant marketing campaign. On Tisha B’Av, it is prohibited to study Torah (the exception being studying the Book of Lamentations, or any section of the Talmud dealing with the destruction of Jerusalem). The organizers who sought to spread their Tisha B’Av program throughout Israel named this new initiative Ha-Layla Lo Lomdim Torah – Tonight We Do Not Study Torah. They picked themes relating to burning issues within Israeli society, and chose panelists who would attract crowds.This marketing campaign caught the eyes of thousands of Israelis who started to become interested in Tisha B’Av.
This coming Saturday night there will be 24 Ha-Layla Lo Lomdim Torah symposiums throughout Israel. The panels will feature Sephardim and Ashkenazim, religious and secular Israelis, members of Knesset, rabbis of all denominations, educators, authors, entertainers and social activists. Together they will sit and engage in dialogue about how to improve Israeli society.
When a friend asked me how I observe Tisha B’Av in Jerusalem, I told him I go to the Kotel to mourn the past, and attend the symposiums to contemplate the future. I walk away from the Kotel feeling sad, but from the symposiums, I walk away filled with hope, as I feel that they are paving the way for the prophet Zechariah's vision, that one day – hopefully soon -- Tisha B’Av will be transformed from a day of mourning into “a day of joy and gladness for the Jewish people.”
Wishing you an easy and meaningful fast.
Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem,
Rabbi Daniel Bouskila