Monday, July 23, 2007

The Mother of All Tragedies

Jerusalem, 70 C.E. The 9th of Av; an eyewitness account:

While the Temple blazed, the victors plundered everything that fell in their way and slaughtered wholesale all who were caught. No pity was shown for age, no reverence for rank; children and greybeards, laity and priests alike were massacred; every class was pursed and encompassed in the grasp of war, whether supplicants for mercy or offering resistance.
The roar of the flames streaming far and wide mingled with the groans of the fallen victims; and, owing to the height of the hill and the mass of the burning pile, one would have thought that the whole city was ablaze. And then the din – nothing more deafening or appalling could be conceived than that. There were the war-cries of the Roman legions sweeping onward in mass, the howls of the rebels encircled by fire and sword, the rush of the people, who, cut off above, fled panic-stricken only to fall into the arms of the foe, and the shrieks as they met their fate. With the cries on the hill were blended those of the multitude in the city below; and now many who were emaciated and tongue-tied from starvation, when they beheld the sanctuary on fire, gathered strength once more for lamentations and wailing.

Josephus, The Jewish War, VI. 271-274

The mother of all tragedies:

The Mishnah tells us (Ta’anit 26a) that five tragic events took place on Tishah B’Av: the sin of the spies, the destruction of the two Temples, the fall of Beitar, and the plowing up of the city of Jerusalem. When the Mishnah writes this, it is not just counting these events. The Mishnah is saying something else, that there is something intrinsic to this day that is responsible for these tragedies. And, in fact, there are not only five, but more than five events that occurred on this day since the time this was written in the Mishnah. Other, later, tragic events also occurred on this day. For example, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 was on Tishah B’Av. And you will find many more as well. It is the day of catastrophe as far as Jewish history is concerned. It is the day of tragedy, as if the day itself was somehow responsible. The day is fatal…
Our history is saturated with pogroms, persecutions, catastrophic events, and all kinds of misfortunes separate and apart from the Temple’s destruction. Half a million Jews, perhaps, were killed during the Middle Ages! Nonetheless, the Rishonim (medieval Rabbinic leaders) were silent. For some reason that we do not understand, they were reluctant to set aside a separate day of fasting and mourning to remember those who were killed for the sanctification of G-d’s Name in the centuries after the destruction of the Temples. Rashi says (II Chron. 35:25) that Tishah B’Av is the day to mourn for any Jewish tragedy. There can be no additional days set aside for mourning and grief, separately designated days of commemoration…
The destruction of the Temple is an all-inclusive concept. If the Temple’s destruction deserves mourning, it is incumbent upon us to mention and feel a sense of mourning on Tishah B’Av for all the catastrophes, tragedies, sufferings, and disasters that happened to the Jewish people during our more than nineteen hundred years of exile, because all of them are a direct result of the Temple’s destruction. Had the destiny of the Temples been different, all the catastrophes and disasters would never have happened. If not for the Temples’ destruction, the Crusades and the Hitler Holocaust, for example, would not have taken place. Everything, every disaster, is a result of the Temples’ destruction; that destruction is responsible for everything.

R. J.B. Soloveitchik, The Lord is Righteous in All His Ways, pgs. 208-214

Why do we still mourn? Isn’t the city rebuilt?

Much impressed by appearances, the casual uninformed observer might well have reason to ask, ‘Why do we continue to plead so desperately for Jerusalem to be rebuilt? True, we have no Temple and we cannot sacrifice offerings, but we can hardly say the city still lays in ruins!’
This question can be answered with an analogy to the patient who receives a heart transplant. The patient is up and around and appears to be healthy, but he is filled with anxiety lest his new heart be rejected or malfunction…
Similarly, the heart of mankind in general and the Jews in particular is the Beis HaMikdash, the Holy Temple. In that location, Adam was created and there G-d breathed life into his nostrils. G-d continued to pump vitality into mankind through the Temple until it was destroyed. Now, we are still maintained, but it is not the same. We are weak and fragile, susceptible to spiritual and moral contamination and disease. We are easily worn out. The whole system can collapse at any time.

R. A.C. Feuer, The Complete Tishah B’Av Service, pg. xv

The Diaspora Jew looks east:

Yerushalayim, rising in its throat-catching beauty on the shores of the Mediterranean, but for all that, lodged firmly in our hearts. Loyalty and longing. A city pining for her children and they? And they, undeterred by endless centuries, unhampered by weary distance, defiantly remain eternal wanderers because they know that outside Yerushalayim they can never really be home.

R. M.M. Eisemann, Harp Strings & Heart Strings, pg. 67

A bold prayer of hope:

Why do You ignore us eternally; forsake us for so long? Bring us back to You, G-d, and we shall return; renew our days as of old. For even if You were disgusted [with our behavior], You have already raged sufficiently against us.

Lamentations, 5:20-22

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your timely and eloquent elaboration of the meaning of Tishah B'Av.