Last week, I had lunch with President Shimon Peres at his residence. A fascinating two-hour break from my usual schedule, talking mostly about history and its lessons – or whether it had any. I was really a sidekick at this event, the President wanted to meet a young and bright Israeli historian, Yuval Noah Harari, and talk to him about his book, “A Brief History of Humankind”. The English version, just released, is called From Animals Into Gods, A Brief History of Humankind – you can purchase it on Amazon, enjoyment guaranteed (but no money back from me).
Harari had huge success in Israel with his book, which has been topping all the non-fiction bestseller lists for more than a year now. From being young and relatively unknown, Harari was catapulted into becoming a well-known trendsetter and public intellectual. And I had the joy of being the editor in charge of the book. So, when he was invited to meet with Peres, I was a happy beneficiary.
They both agreed that there isn’t much to be learned from history. People learn history to avoid the mistakes of the past, Peres said during our meeting, but added that he doesn’t see why new mistakes would be necessarily better than the old ones. Harari agreed, drawing lessons should not be the purpose of studying history. For him, studying the past is important for human beings so that they can be freed from the chains and shadows of the past.
Tisha b’Av is a case in point – it was not mentioned at the table, but as I was thinking about the lunch afterwards, it suddenly seemed relevant. Why mourn on Tisha b’Av, the date of the destruction of the Temples? And for how long should one mourn over past tragic events? And what exactly are we mourning, the destruction of the Temple, the Galut – dispersion of Jews, the end of Jewish sovereignty? The Temple has still not been rebuilt, but I’m not sure there’s a majority of Jews really longing to go back to sacrificing lambs in Jerusalem. And Jews can freely come to the land of Israel and live as members of the new sovereign Jewish enterprise that is Israel. No wonder Tisha b’Av is hardly a consensus, no wonder that many Jews barely know when it comes and don’t really care. Tisha b’Av, on which we remember Sinat Hinam (baseless hatred), which according to tradition led to the destruction of the Second Temple, stands as testimony to the fact that the Jewish people is still not unified, not even in mourning.
There are attempt all over Israel (and in the US as well, but less so) to revive Tisha b’Av, give it new meaning, that will make it resonate with more people. Some, like Rabbi Laura Geller, emphasize civility in our discourse:
The astonishing claim is that how we talk to and about each other around issues that matter can destroy a city or maybe even a country. Words matter. Innuendo can kill. More and more, that seems to be true today, as well. Look at how the public conversation around routing the Metro through Beverly Hills is tearing the community apart. And notice how difficult it is for those of us with strong feelings about what is happening in Israel to talk with people with whom we disagree or how hard it is to have a civil, thoughtful conversation about health care in America.
Others – like Steven Klein of Haaretz (but you’d expect such a message to be carried primarily by Haaretz) – use Tisha b’Av to promote political agendas:
It should come as no surprise then that the Palestinians too seek to preserve hope of their redemption. Just like us, they have a date. Just like us, they make maps of their destroyed villages and omit modern Jewish cities. And just like us, they justify the war that led to their own destruction and exile.
Some would like Tisha b’Av to be used for the advancement of universal causes, such as the end to nuclear proliferation, or human trafficking, while others draw very personal lessons from it, such as the need for love for no reason, or tribal lessons, such as the need for Jewish independence, or that Jewish power can prevent the reoccurrence of Jewish destruction.
We all attach meanings to different holidays – Passover, Yom Kippur, Purim all are dates to which differing, even contradictory values can be attributed. But Tisha b’Av is trickier than most others: It is unwisely scheduled – mid summer is not the best time for anything; it is depressing – not happy or even spiritually lifting; it is community oriented – and Jews are usually better with family-oriented holidays; it seems a little bit outdated – the events we mourn are, well, far away in the past; and there’s no Jewish agreement of the proper remedy for our supposed Tisha b’Av depression – do we really want the Temple rebuilt? Do we want sacrifices? Do we want Jews to go back to being ruled by Sanhedrin? Do we still believe in prophets and priests?
If there one thing many Jews can easily share on Tisha b’Av – it is the sense of unease with this date. Tisha b’Av is when we celebrate our confusion over our past and over our future. How much of our past do we really want to resurrect, which parts of it we are willing to scrap or readjust, what should the Third Temple – real or imagined - be like, or maybe this Temple is already under construction?
If you are searching for a reason to mark Tisha b’Av, here’s one suggestion: don’t try to draw too many lessons from the date, just mourn the sorrow of Jewish incoherence. For one day mourn the fact that the Jews have such hard time finding a consensual goal over which they can all agree to mourn, together - and the next day, rejoice this exact same fact, that Jewish life is so vibrantly incoherent and messy.
“And ye shall be comforted in Jerusalem” (Isaiah, 66, 13).