Reflections On Tishah B’av
By Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov Jax, Fl.
Napoleon Bonaparte was passing through the Jewish quarter in Paris when he stopped to investigate the strange cries and laments emanating from the local synagogue. His curiosity had been piqued when he was informed that it was the Ninth of Av and that he was listening to the Jewish people wail over the destruction of their Holy Temple in Jerusalem. “When did this thing happen?” probed the inquisitive Emperor. “Some 1700 years ago,” came the nonchalant reply. Upon hearing this Napoleon remarked in a tone of awe and conviction: “A people who refuse to forget their past, are destined to forever have a future.”
“Whoever mourns for Jerusalem, will merit to witness her rejoicing,” as the Prophet (Yeshayahu 66:10) declares: “Rejoice with her greatly, all who mourn for her.” – Talmud
The designation of a special day intended to honor a given event or segment of society, is a quite common practice among the world’s various nationalities and cultures. Americans, for example, celebrate Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Independence Day, and a host of other special occasions, such as Mother’s day, Father’s day, Valentine’s day and even Secretary’s day.
Judaism (l’havdil) has its own variety of commemorative days. In addition to the Biblical Festivals, there are a set of Rabbinical Holidays, such as Chanukah and Purim, as well as some less major occasions, the likes of Tu B’shvat, Lag B’omer, Pesach Seini and Tu B’av.
So, at first glance, the notion of a designated day intended to commemorate the destruction of the Holy Temple, the pride and centerpiece of our glorious religion, seems completely reasonable. However, upon further reflection, it does not appear to be all that logical after all.
While the nature of a holiday in most of the other cultures and religions is, for the most part, commemorative – If not economy driven – and hence relatively shallow by comparison, it is not that way in Judaism. There are, in fact, no purely commemorative oriented holidays in Judaism, much less commercial.
While some or perhaps all of Judaism’s holidays have a commemorative component, they nonetheless each contain a far deeper dimension and essence. They bear a compelling message, relevant to the day and age in which they are celebrated. Far more than celebrations of the past; Jewish holidays are, necessarily, celebrations of the present and future.
Given the above, the question that emerges is what relevant message is there in the two thousand year old destruction of the Temple, holy and glorious as it were, that would warrant an annual commemoration. And not just any commemoration, but one that includes fasting, sitting on the ground, lamenting and weeping?
Let’s face it, two thousand years is a very, very long time. Civilization has radically changed since that age, beyond recognition. There is hardly a people or culture on the face of the earth that dates back to that point in history. Virtually nothing remains. The very enemy that had destroyed our Temple and driven us out of the land is long since gone, yet we’re here. So what are we crying about? Is it reasonable to mourn a two thousand year old structure?
Ok, so it’s not just the Temple’s structure that we mourn, it’s the whole era. Those were after all the glory days – the zenith of our existence as a people both spiritually and physically – but still, nothing lasts forever. Shouldn’t we let bygones be bygones? Are we not being a little unrealistic by holding on to a past life?
In fact, in recent history we have witnessed the miraculous return of the land to our people and our people to the land. Doesn’t that go a long way in making up for the tragic events of two thousand year ago?
One might argue that the return of the land after two thousand years is as big an event, if not bigger, as our being driven out, yet we still mourn those long-gone days of glory. Why?
To answer the rather deserving questions we must note that we cannot perceive our existence as natural or normal. If we were to perceive our existence as a people in a purely conventional context – another race among races, another land among lands – there would indeed be valid grounds for the argument. Why should we expect our two thousand year old Temple and religious climactic age to survive the vast span of history when none else has proven able to do so? But, in that event, would we actually still be around to even ask the question? On what grounds are we to assume that we would?
It is quite obvious that the Jew does not perceive his existence or that of his faith, in the context of anything ordinary or rational. Ordinary people do not march to their death defiantly chanting the words “Ani Ma’Amin.” Ordinary people do not pick up, after being persecuted and massacred to the brink of annihilation, time and time again, only to rebuild. What other people have done this?
According to the rational order of things we should not really exist at all, as proven by the fact that no other people from that age – nations that have suffered far less persecution than us Jews – continue to exist.
This is what has amazed the greatest philosophers and historians throughout the ages, admirers and critics alike. “The Jews are the most remarkable people in the history of the world,” asserted the nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, “For when they were confronted with the question, to be or not to be, they chose, with perfectly unearthly deliberation, to be at any price … They defined themselves counter to all those conditions under which a nation was previously able to live …”
It is only because the Jew sees himself as a unique creation with a unique mission that he has chosen “to be,” against all the odds, and it is only for that reason that he still “is.” With the above in mind is there really any wonder as to why as Jews we refuse to forget our past? Why we continue to reject the exilic state of existence?
The Jew knows in his deepest of psyches that there is meaning to his life and that there is meaning to creation and that the dark and bitter state of exile is not it. The Jew is deeply cognizant of the fact that darkness and spiritual deprivation are not the end-all state of creation which G-d had in mind, but rather descents for the sake for even greater ascents. Thus, he wails. To cry is man’s most potent expression of dissatisfaction with the way things are versus how they could be.
No one more than the Jew is aware that every calamity and every form of destruction that had ever come to be, tragic as it were, had resulted in greater renewal and growth. He is keenly aware that the sin of the golden calf and the breaking of the first set of Tablets had spurred a second set, which contained an inconceivable amount of additional Divine knowledge.
He is likewise aware that the Babylonian exile had yielded the unparalleled gift of the vast Talmudic body of text, which has become the central and most comprehensive resource in all of Judaism, and that the same is true with every setback. Thus he shall never come to grips with the state of descent.
At the core of every Jewish soul lies the fundamental belief that G-d is good and that all which emanates from Him is good – that every challenge, setback and defeat is intrinsically abounding, permeated and saturated with potential, opportunity and blessing. Thus he sets his sights beyond the pain, beyond the suffering and destruction.
On Tishah B’Av the Jew declares that he will forever seek the ascent within the descent and that he will never mistake one for the other.
All this, of course, is connected with this week’s Torah reading, as all events of a given week are. Since Divarim, the first Parsha of the fifth and final book, is always read on the Shabbos before Tishah B’Av, its message must be evermore relevant to this occasion.
As it turns out, the book of Divarim, in its very anatomy, expresses the idea of the decent for the sake of ascent. The book of Divarim, we are taught, is distinguished from the four earlier books by virtue of the fact that, unlike the other books, where Moshe repeated the words of G-d verbatim, in Divarim he actually uses his own words.
The use of Moshe’s own words is obviously somewhat of a descent, in comparison to those coming directly from G-d Himself. However, at the same time there is a considerable advantage to the recipient in Moshe’s internalization and reformulation of the words. For, in the latter event, the words are more “customized,’ if you will, to the level of the recipient.
Given the fact that the book of Divarim was directed to the second generation after the Egyptian liberation, not only was this generation a step removed from the Sinatic experience, it was, more importantly, the generation that was destined and poised to inherit the land, with all its intrinsic trials and tribulations; this more customized form of speech was a crucial blessing for them.
With a bit of consideration, one may come to fully appreciate how the latter encapsulates and personifies the essence of Yiridah L’zorech Aliah – ascent for the sake of descent, which, as mentioned above, is what Tishah B’Av is all about.
May these days of mourning forever be transformed to days of joy and merriment. After this long and bitter exile and the enormous accompanying descent, may we merit the ultimate and final ascent with the coming of Moshiach.