July 27, 2012 (Shabbat Chazon/Devarim)


Whenever the liturgical calendar rolls around to midsummer, I perennially wonder about the relevancy of Tisha B’Av—a question that struck me with particular force several summers ago, when I found myself among throngs of Israelis on the Hass Promenade overlooking the walls of the Old City, on Tisha B’Av, chanting Al Naharot Bavel. I thought, how strange to be weeping over the loss of Zion, in Zion! I asked myself then, and I still ask, why should we continue to mark and mourn the destruction of the ancient Temple, especially now that the birth of the State of Israel has reversed, at least partially, the perpetual condition of exile that our people suffered for millenia? And would we even want to rebuild the Temple and reinstitute animal sacrifice, even if geopolitical circumstances allowed for it?

Tisha B’Av persists to comfort us and to challenge us. On a national, historical level, viewed from the perspective of centuries, it is remarkable that we even still exist as a people. When the invincible Roman empire, the global superpower of its day, overran the insignificant, outlying province of Judea two thousand years ago, stamping out its insurrection as no more than a minor irritation, most contemporaries foresaw the imminent demise of the Jews. Literature from the period abounds with dire images of the apocalypse and the end of the world. The conquerors built a great monument to immortalize their victory. Today, tourists visit the crumbling Arch of Titus among other ancient relics of the Roman forum testifying to a bygone era, but gleaming skyscrapers tower above the thriving city of Tel Aviv, eclipsing the neighboring Roman port of Jaffa, and Jewish inhabitants have spread to every corner of the world. I plan to frame tomorrow evening’s Tisha B’Av service with two renditions, centuries apart, of Psalm 137, Al Naharot Bavel, “by the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion”—the first a motet composed by the Italian Renaissance composer Solomon Rossi, and the second a rock version sung by the Israeli boy prodigy Meydad Tasa. Just as the loved one lives on as long as someone continues to say Kaddish for her, so too the Jewish people lives on as long as someone continues to set Al Naharot Bavel to music. Tisha B’Av consoles us with the reminder that, first and foremost, we Jews are survivors.

On a personal, liturgical level, viewed from the perspective of the seasons, Tisha B’Av spurs us to moral and spiritual growth. The destruction of the Temple is symbolic of all the failures and disappointments of our lives. Sometimes the illusory walls of comfort and security have to crumble around us before we realize what’s truly important. The work-driven executive experiences a health crisis, and then he slows down to spend time with his family. The alcoholic hits rock bottom, and then she is motivated to seek help. The retiree loses half his life savings in the financial crisis and realizes that money isn’t everything. Sometimes “our hearts crack open and sorrow comes flooding in,” and only then do we “believe that tears can transform, that redemption is possible.” (“As Tisha B’Av Approaches,” the Velveteen Rabbi) When the Talmudic Rabbis wrote that “the Temple was destroyed because of senseless hatred,” (bYoma 9b) they were exhorting their followers not to blame their fate on external conditions over which they had no control, but to devote their energies toward changing the only circumstances within their power to influence—themselves.

For this reason, Tisha B’Av is the gateway to High Holidays, formally linked with Rosh Hashanah through exactly seven “weeks of consolation.” Tisha B’Av induces cheshbon ha-nefesh, cheshbon ha-nefesh induces teshuvah, and teshuvah induces simchah. If we engage the process, then crisis will lead to introspection, introspection will lead to repentance, and repentance will ultimately lead to joy—the liberating joy of the festival regarding which the Torah commands, “you shall have nothing but joy.” (Deuteronomy 16:15) It is remarkable that at the end of our annual spiritual cleansing and renewal begun on Tisha B’Av, we emerge to inhabit another building of sorts, not the Temple of stones and mortar that has collapsed, but the sukkah that is open to the stars and to the elements. Ironically, the flimsiest of all structures is the one left standing. Thus, we learn to place all our hope and trust not in material power or possessions, but in relationships with each other and with God.

What is the lasting significance of Tisha B’Av? I have framed the answer as follows. For the Jewish people as a whole, Tisha B’Av reassures us that we will survive through any national calamity, as we have always survived in the past. For the Jewish individual, Tisha B’Av challenges us to redeem ourselves from personal sorrows by transforming them into opportunities for moral and spiritual growth. It occurs to me that the twin lessons of Tisha B’Av apply equally well switched the other way around. On a communal and national level, we are far from redeemed, and there are many ways that we author the many ills that beset us—environmentally, socially, and economically. When tragedy strikes, we must always ask, in what ways is society itself responsible? Conversely, on a personal level, we must remind ourselves of our own strength. When tragedy strikes, we must always say to ourselves: “I have managed in the past, and I will get through this too.”

I’d like to close with the image of the night sky on Tisha B’Av, the gibbous moon lighting up the landscape. In Jewish mysticism, the moon is a classic symbol for the community of Israel, because, like the moon, the fortunes of Israel have waxed and waned throughout history, and, like the cycles of the moon, Israel constantly renews herself. What is true for the moon and for Israel is also true for ourselves: our fortunes wax and wane throughout our lives, but we continually and, indeed, cyclically, have the opportunity to renew ourselves. It is significant that Tisha B’Av, the ninth of the month of Av, falls on the ninth day of the lunar cycle, which means that the moon appears in its ascendant phase. The brightest times lie ahead. So may it be for Israel, and so may it be for us.

What does it mean, anyway, when we pray daily in the Amidah and the Birkat Hamazon bonei Yerushalayim, “may God rebuild Jerusalem” (although the Reform Siddur used to soft-pedal such passages or expunge them outright). (check) The Book of Lamentations ends with the plea that has found its way into every Torah service: chadeish yameinu kekedem, “renew our days as of old!” It reminds me of the outcry that sprang up as a backlash to rapid social change—“take back Vermont!!”—when we happened to arrive there a dozen years ago. Nostalgia for the good, old days seems to be embedded in the human psyche, but time—and life—moves inexorably forward, never backward.