D'var Torah for Tisha B'Av
2000Our learning this week is not from a Torah text, but rather an event that our people commemorate annually. On Thursday, we observed the day of Tisha B'Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. This day is infamous in history, for it is the anniversary of the destruction of both the First Temple in 576 BCE and the Second Temple in 70 CE. Throughout the years a number of catastrophes have been connected to the ninth day of the month of Av, including the last and losing battle of the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 CE and the edict for the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. This day in history has been a dreadful day of mourning and sadness for the many losses that the Jewish people have endured. Today, the ninth of Av continues to be observed by the Jewish people by fasting, prayer and by reading the book of Lamentations, called Eicha in Hebrew.
Half and Half
At the time of the destruction of the Temple, there were Jews who took their mourning practices to extremes. As he watched the Temple being destroyed, Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah urged his students not to go to extremes in mourning the losses of the Jewish people. He said, "Not to mourn is impossible because the blow has fallen. To mourn excessively is also impossible, because we do not impose such a hardship on the community. A person may stucco his house, but he should leave a little bare. A person may prepare a full-course dinner, but he should omit an item or two." (from Jewish Days by Francine Klagsbrun). These words of Joshua ben Hananiah, as well as the day of Tisha B'Av itself, beg some further discussion.
Your Tisha B'Av Navigator
1. If today the State of Israel is a reality in our lives, why would we continue to observe Tisha B'Av, which commemorates the destruction of the Temples?
2. In addition to remembering the sadness of the destruction of the Temples on Tisha B'Av, the destruction is also remembered at every Jewish wedding. Why would we want to remember this sadness during the festivities of a wedding?
3. What does Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah mean when he instructs his students to build a house, but leave a little bare, or make a dinner, but omit an item or two?
4. What do these practices of balancing the rituals of mourning and celebrating tell us about Judaism?
Judaism is a religion that often balances between two tensions: that of remembering sadness and that of rejoicing in the future. At first it may seem that these two states of mind are incompatible with one another. But as Jews we understand that both are important. It is essential that we remember our past, even when it has been difficult. And yet, dwelling on it could paralyze us and prevent us from reaching our potential, from realizing our future.
Likewise, only celebrating without remembering our past is shallow and unfulfilling. That is why even in our happiest and most hopeful times, we remember our sadness. For in doing so, we realize that our celebration is even sweeter and more holy as a result.
This Shabbat recognizes the holiness of remembering our affliction, yet finding comfort in our future. It is called Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of consolation, and marks the first of seven weeks before the High Holy Days. The haftarah portion for this Shabbat comes from the prophet Isaiah, who offered people comfort and hope after the destruction of the First Temple. His prophecies were half suffering and half consolation. His message was not to give up hope -- that God would comfort the Jewish people. Even today, Isaiah's message continues to inspire and instruct the Jewish people. Do not give up hope. Even in times of great difficulty, continue to have faith in God. We are a people of great sadness and great triumph. Let us not forget either of them.
Today is no different. We wait with anxious anticipation as the difficult negations between Israel and the Palestinians continue. We watch with hesitant optimism and wonder as a Jew is slated for the Democratic vice-presidential ticket. May this Tisha B'Av cause us once again to pause for reflection. We are a people of great sadness and great triumph. May it always be so.
Rabbi Andrea Lerner, Midwest Director of Hillel's Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning, University of Wisconsin