Tisha B’av: A Day of Collective Mourning and Introspection
Next Monday night and Tuesday are Tisha B’av, the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av. Tisha B’av is the communal day of Jewish mourning. The mishnah, an early rabbinic text, states that five events occurred on the 9thof Av: the decree was made against the generation who left Egypt that they would not enter the land of Israel, the first and second Temples were destroyed, Betar was taken during the Bar Kokhba revolt, and Jerusalem was ploughed under by the Romans. While Tisha b’av also commemorates other tragic events in history, the day’s central theme is the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. To mark this somber occasion, we will gather on Monday at Congregation Sinai at 8pm to recite the book of Lamentations and sing elegies. We will sit on the floor as a sign of mourning and refrain from greeting one another. Additionally, we refrain from acts of intimacy, bathing, and wearing leather shoes throughout the 24 hour period.
A few weeks ago I gave a sermon in shul about the importance of history and memory for us as a Jewish community. I spoke of the incomprehensible pride many in American society take in being ignorant of history and disconnected from it. Our society is increasingly becoming one that lives in the moment, cherishes the present, and could pretty much care less about the past. Many in American society today are loathe to have a serious conversation about history, particularly more somber events. Yet, history has much to teach us about our own state of affairs.
For instance, the Rabbis, as well as the prophets, conceptualize the destruction of the two Temples not as an act of external victimization, but rather as the consequence of our own behaviors. We are taught the first Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians as punishment for Israel’s idolatrous practices and their flight from ethical and moral behavior. Similarly, the Second Temple was destroyed by Israel’s own internal politics. We know that the Second Temple period was rife with sectarianism, and it was baseless hatred between Jews that finally caused the second destruction.
When I step back and look at the state of the klal Yisrael, the Jewish people, I see us repeating the same mistakes that led to the destruction of the Temples and our dispersion. We are a fragmented people, and worse than that, our fragmentation has led to hatred and bitter infighting. Like our ancestors who fell into the idolatrous practices of the surrounding cultures, all of us have been swayed to some extent by the allure of modern materialism that sometimes borders on idolatry.
As Jews, we must not allow ourselves to adopt the trend of secular society and divorce ourselves from history. We are obligated to embrace the history of our people and the meta-historical lessons we can glean from our past, particularly when we find ourselves repeating our mistakes. We know more of our people’s past than our grandparents and great-grandparents could ever imagine. Yet, they were able to embrace Tisha B’av as a time for collective soul-searching and communal mourning simultaneously. There is good reason to follow their example. I encourage us all to embrace this day and use the mourning practices I mentioned above as a way of reminding ourselves where Jewish infighting and hatred led us in our past and where the worship of material things brought our people. Let us use Tisha B’av as an opportunity to reconnect with our history, if only momentarily, as a means of evaluating the present state of the Jewish people. Come and join us at Congregation Sinai on Monday evening. Together, we will bewail the tragedies that have been inflicted upon us throughout our history. But more importantly, we will use the time to look inward to see how we can help our people rid itself of modern-day idolatry and the internal hatred that threatens our unity. Our tradition teaches that those who remain cognizant of the destruction of Jerusalem and the causes that led us down that path are the only ones who can have a roll in its rebuilding.
Rabbi Philip Ohriner