Jewish Journal

The meaning of Tisha b'Av in trying times

Together, we remember

by Rabbi Eliyahu Fink

Posted on Jul. 30, 2014 at 3:04 pm

<em>“Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem,” by Francesco Hayez</em>

“Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem,” by Francesco Hayez

This is not the first time war has ravaged the small slip of land that borders the Mediterranean Sea to the west and the Jordan River to the east. Canaan, Eretz Yisrael, Judea, Syria Palaestina, Bilad al-Sham, British Mandate of Palestine, The State of Israel, whatever its name, it has hosted ferocious conflicts for millennia. 

We watch from afar, in space, as our brothers and sisters kill others and as they suffer through attacks against their homes and happiness. We watch from afar, in time, reading the bloody history of our people in the Land.

On the evening of Aug. 4 and for 25 subsequent hours, Jews around the world will mark the 9th day of the Hebrew month Av with the Tisha b’Av fast and day of mourning. Historically, this has been our day to reach back into time and experience the pain and trauma of some of the bloodiest conflicts on Israel’s holy soil. Orthodox Jews, and many non-Orthodox Jews, will mourn this Tisha b’Av by sitting on the floor, reading Lamentations, crying through expressive religious poems known as kinnot, and focusing on the many tragedies to befall our people.

One of the biggest challenges of Tisha b’Av is finding the strength to feel pain that has had thousands of years to heal. For many people, the day ruefully memorializes our fallen temples, but for many non-Orthodox Jews, the loss of our temple is no reason to be sad. Perhaps this explains the dearth of non-Orthodox Tisha b’Av services. Why mourn for a temple if its absence is not considered a tragedy? Even for devout Jews, who intellectually appreciate the devastation we should feel over the destruction of our temple, turning these thoughts into feelings can be extremely difficult.

But Tisha b’Av and the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem are not merely about architectural losses or even the loss of sacrifices and temple rituals of splendor. Something far more calamitous occurred when the Second Temple was razed to the ground nearly 2,000 years ago.

Our Talmudic Sages teach that the Second Temple was destroyed due to sinat chinam — baseless hatred — between fellow Jews. Typically, this is taken to mean that the Jews of that time, much like Jews of seemingly every time, did not need an excuse for enmity toward each other. Instead of gratuitous kindness and friendship, they exhibited gratuitous divisiveness and acrimony toward each other. To be sure, this is a valuable and important lesson: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” 

But it seems the rabbis were alluding to a bit of historical context as well. The simple version of the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. is a story of superior Roman forces overwhelming a puny Jewish army. But the siege and subsequent fall of Jerusalem to the Roman legions were far more dramatic and much more tragic.

The Roman victory was actually unintentionally aided by Jewish rebel factions, whose internal strife paved the way for the enemy’s triumph. The last stand of the Jews during the Great Revolt took place in Jerusalem. At the time, according to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, three groups of Jewish zealots occupied the Temple Mount, outer courtyard and inner courtyard of the temple for strategic purposes. 

The holy residents of Jerusalem shared their precious city with extremists who vacillated between genuinely attempting to best the Romans and pillaging their fellow Jews throughout the land of Israel for entertainment and personal gain. While Jerusalem was under siege, a guerrilla civil war raged in the hills of Jerusalem between these rival groups. During this crucial and perilous time, these militias slaughtered each other, sabotaged communal supplies, and laid waste to Jerusalem and its petrified residents. 

Power struggles and petty personal issues destroyed any chance the rebels may have had for military success. Their vicious infighting weakened the rebels to the point that they practically handed the Romans the opportunity to burn Jerusalem and its prized temple to the ground.

Sinat chinam might refer to the general social environment of their time, but I think the rabbis intended to remind us that our divisiveness had the practical effect of making us so weak that we could offer the Romans no military resistance. We had wasted it all fighting among ourselves. 

What was the price of our folly? According to Josephus, the Romans slaughtered 1.1 million Jewish souls during the Great Revolt. We also lost our temple.

The final tally: One temple and one million one hundred thousand people.

Mourning for the temple is sentimental and admirable. Mourning our fallen Jewish brothers and sisters is essential and imperative.

Most years, it can be hard to relate to the death of 1.1 million people. That’s a good thing. But this year, this past month, it’s been too easy to feel death. Lately, death is in the very air that we breathe. We’ve lost dozens of our brothers and sisters to this war. We’ve mourned for our fallen Angeleno son, Max Steinberg. Our neighbors in Gaza have lost many, many more.

The sister of Israeli soldier Barak Refael Degorker, who died after suffering wounds from Gaza mortar fire, mourns during his funeral in Gan Yavne on July 27. Photo by Reuters/SIEGFRIED MODOLA

It’s painful to see images of death and devastation. There is torment in observing national funerals, and it tears our hearts to read tearful obituaries. Tisha b’Av remembers this kind of collective pain spanning three millennia. This year, it’s easy to feel Tisha b’Av.

The Jewish nation experienced collective pain this summer, as Jews around the world rallied around the three kidnapped yeshiva students, Eyal, Gilad and Naftali, in June. We were reminded how it feels to be united and what it’s like to feel the suffering of our fellow Jews, near and far. It was a heady time backed by a soundtrack of a wounded, but comforting, melodious harmony. It was inspired and inspiring.

But the more recent reactions to the war hearkens the division of Jerusalem before it fell 2,000 years ago. The kidnapped boys brought out the best in us. The war has brought out the worst in us. Our song has been transformed from a sweet symphony to a screeching cacophony.

We are a diverse people, and our heterogeneousness has never been more apparent than it is right now. There are passionate Jews advocating extreme pacifism, extreme militancy and everything in between. Some people love Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while others cannot stand him. Many people laud the formidable support for Israel demonstrated by the United States government and President Barack Obama, while others are convinced that Obama is rooting for Hamas. The opinions are strong and the arguments are vociferous. 

In Israel, some arguments have taken a violent turn as peace activists and war hawks clash in the streets of Tel Aviv. We are a nation both united and divided by our shared concern. It is beginning to feel a little more like the Great Revolt 2,000 years ago. Squabbles are morphing into schism.

Diversity of opinion is beautiful. The Talmud, the primary text of post-biblical Judaism, is practically a guidebook on diversity of opinion. We pride ourselves on “two Jews, three opinions ... and very close friends.” 

But I fear that we are veering off into dangerous partisan territory. We need to remember first and foremost, we are Jewish brothers and sisters. Disagreements and disputes are secondary to our primary state of unity. Physical violence and vitriolic discourse are not our way, and they cannot become our way. In our hearts, we know how to disagree in one moment and embrace in the next, and we cannot allow the conflict in Israel to make us forget this vital skill.

This Tisha b’Av, we must remember the practical effects of sinat chinam. It’s not simply a mussar-like platitude urging us to be kinder to one another. It’s a warning. If we cannot stand together as one, especially when it matters most, we risk losing it all. A house divided against itself cannot stand.

Netream Netzleam holds the body of her daughter Razel, 1 — who medics said died from injuries sustained in an Israeli air strike — at her funeral in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. Photo by Reuters/FINBARR O’REILLY

Those of us who regularly mark Tisha b’Av should be mindful of the human tragedy we should be remembering. Two thousand years ago, our infighting and inability to stand as one doomed us to peril and then signed our death certificate. We cannot allow that to happen again. 

Those of us who have ignored Tisha b’Av should consider the gravity of this year’s observance. This summer, we could all benefit from a day of reflection and mourning in unison. It would do us all some good.

Judaism is notorious for its reluctance to “let it go,” unabashedly flouting the cry of Disney’s Princess Elsa from “Frozen.” We have long memories. We don’t let things go easily. Tisha b’Av dates back to the destruction of the First Temple 2,500 years ago. Many of us willingly relive our ancient agony and suffering every single year. In the wake of the Holocaust, we proclaimed, “never forget” despite all of our instincts screaming that forgetting was our only choice. We remember. To me, there’s great beauty to our persistent refusal to forget.

Our Talmudic Sages teach us that the biblical holidays will be obsolete in Messianic time. However, we are taught that Tisha b’Av is eternal and will reverse from a day of mourning to a day of celebration. 

We relive our most tragic moments every year on Tisha b’Av, but it’s not because we are masochists or incapable of getting past our trauma. Rather it is because we know that our sadness will turn to joy. We hold onto our cumulative misery spanning thousands of years and millions of tears so that we have more to celebrate when our tears of sorrow become tears of joy. Forgetting all our suffering only diminishes our future delight.

This, too, is a useful tool for these dark times. Don’t avoid the news reports. Don’t hide from the pain. Don’t shy away from the stories. Engage in the struggle. Feel everything. Then when the sun shines again, it will shine so much brighter.

Tisha b’Av comes every year, but this year it is different. We have been given enough reasons to remember collective human suffering this year. We have been given enough reasons to remember the importance of standing together, especially when we disagree. 

Tisha b’Av is an important opportunity to participate in an international communal day of reflection. It’s just what we need this summer. It couldn’t possibly come at a better time. Feel Tisha b’Av this year.

You need it.

We all need it.

The father of Israeli soldier Tal Yifrah mourns over his son’s flag-covered coffin during his funeral in Rishon Lezion near Tel Aviv on July 22. Photo by Reuters/RONEN ZVULUN

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink is the rabbi at Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach in Venice. He blogs for Haaretz.com and his personal blog at finkorswim.com.

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