Friday, July 25, 2008

In the Mood for Tisha B'Av?

Sunday was the seventeenth of Taamuz and next Shabbat is the first of Av. Which means one thing: Tisha B’Av is approaching. On Tisha B’Av, Jerusalem was lost and the Temple was destroyed. It is the day we were exiled from our homeland and the day the Diaspora began. It is the saddest day of the year and we need to start preparing for it now.

Of all the Jewish days on the calendar, Tisha B’Av is the most difficult to observe. Nobody has trouble relating to the festive holidays. All year we look forward to Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot. Everybody loves Chanukah and Purim. Even when it comes to Yom Kippur, as hard as it may be for us to face the challenge of personal growth, we still manage to experience the holiness of the day by giving repentance our best shot. Tisha B’Av, however, is another story. On Tisha B’Av you can’t satisfy yourself by going through the motions. There are no motions. There are only tears. Either you have them or you don’t.

On Tisha B’Av there is no Shofar to blow, no Seder to lead, and no Menorah to light. It does not call for any external action at all. What it calls for is emotion. Fasting and mourning are simultaneously the means to inspire somber reflection and the natural reaction to the burning issues of the day. Tisha B’Av demands consciousness of our national history, empathy for our national pain, and sharing our national aspirations. Tisha B’Av is aimed directly at our hearts, and that is why it is such a challenge.

There is a popular misconception that observing Tisha B’Av is only for Jews who are passionate about Judaism. Nothing could be further from the truth. Such mistaken thinking is the result of an ignorance of how mitzvot operate. Jewish identity is by no means a required prerequisite for the observance of Tisha B’Av. Quite the opposite. The observance of Tisha B’Av itself generates Jewish identity.

It is not expected that people will naturally feel joy on the holidays or grief on Tisha B’Av. If it came to us naturally, there would be no mitzvah. Our job is to make the effort to inspire these feelings within. By focusing on the tragedies of our history, by empathizing with the suffering of our people, and by recognizing that Divine intervention is our only hope, we connect with our past, we unite with our people, and we awaken our souls. That is the mitzvah of Tisha B’Av.

The Talmud tells us that the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred. A breakdown of community is something G-d does not tolerate. So He left. After functioning as a sanctuary for G-d’s Presence for 420 years, the Temple became no more than an empty building.

Having been destroyed spiritually, it was only a matter of time before it was destroyed physically. It stands to reason that as long as hatred exists among Jews, the Divine Presence will not return to Jerusalem.

But it is not the mere eradication of hate that we are after. Love is our goal. How can we uproot the evil of hate, replace it with love, and put an end to our exile? Tisha B’Av is the answer.

It is very easy to talk about love, unity, and identity, but how do you know if it is real? We convince ourselves that we have fulfilled the mitzvah of loving our fellow Jews, but have we? The question we need to ask ourselves is this: Do we share the joys of our brothers and sisters? Do we feel their pain? Do we feel for the nation as a whole? Such feelings do not materialize by themselves; they need to be cultivated and developed. It is for this reason that we have Tisha B’Av. On Tisha B’Av we move beyond self-centeredness into other-centeredness. We deepen our relationship with our fellow Jews by allowing the suppressed love and concern within our souls to break through to the surface.

Today we have been over-saturated with tragedy and our hearts have hardened. We have lost our sensitivity and we have forgotten how to cry. Tisha B’Av restores our hearts back to the warm, empathetic Jewish heart that it was designed to be. By mourning the tragedies of our history right down to the present day, we teach our hearts to feel again. The sadness of Tisha B’Av is not a depression that breaks you; it is a compassionate sadness that fixes and heals.

On Tisha B'Av, we mourn our distance from G-d, we cleanse any residue of hate from our hearts, and we forge a more meaningful relationship with our people, our land, and our G-d. Every Jew needs Tisha B’Av. But in order the have a successful Tisha B’Av, one cannot wait until the ninth of Av. Preparations must begin weeks in advance.

The inner work of Tisha B’Av is too important and too difficult for just one day. The mourning period therefore begins three weeks earlier on the seventeenth of Tammuz. The mourning starts on a low level, easily accessible to all. Slowly, as we enter the month of Av, the mourning intensifies until the climax is reached on the fast of Tisha B’Av.

There are no shortcuts. It is difficult to experience a meaningful Tisha B’Av if the earlier stages are skipped. But if one prepares properly during the “Three Weeks,” learning the lessons of our painful history, observing the mourning practices of the period and slowly increasing consciousness of the sad state of the Jewish world, then Tisha B’Av will be what it was meant to be. A day on which the core of our Jewish identity is revealed in all of its beauty. There is no other day like it.


  1. Rabbi Gordon

    First I woud like to wish a personal Mazal Tov ot you and your family.

    I always enjoy reading the JSN Parsha sheet, it is insightful and insprational.

    I do not think however that you have related the true spirit of the day/tikufa and what must be achived by all in order to experience a true Geula.

    The gemara in Sandhedrin while relating the story of Kamtza and BarKamtza continues. The Roman ruler of Jerusalem is convinced to bring a korban of an animal that is not truly acceptable. the korban is brought and the Rav of the Beit Hamikdash decides, according to the texts, that this is unacceptable and must be rejected, even though there were other options available to him. Wow! this is so severe of a Chilul Hashem that this decision also contributes to the destruction of the temple and the ensuing diaspora and pilug, divisions, that we all still suffer today. The Rav instead of using what "Hakodesh Baruch Hu" gave him as intellect, went to the texts - which should always be our basis, and decided to not accept the korban instead of looking for a way to accept the korban.

    I also think that if we wait for the geula pssively it will not come. There are examples of this. I think the best one would be that Yam Tzuf did not split untill Nachson Ben Aminadav jumped in. If we take no action, there is no reason for Hashem to grant our wishes and desires for we are not worthy. When the day comes and we get to Shamayim one of the questions we are told we will be asked is,"What did YOU do to bring the Geula?"

    The written word is important, however, if we fail to take our heads out the book and look and experience the world around us, and to influence the world around us, we lose our perspective and quite possibly we can make bad decisions.

    Just some musings

    Shabbat Shalom


  2. Very interesting post.
    Here in Shiloh we await and pray for the day when the 9th of Av will be a festive holiday.

  3. Arthur-
    Thank you for your challenging comment. I've been thinking it over and here is my response.
    The Gemara in Gittin is indeed making a critical point, but I would doubt that it is granting a blanket license to ignore texts when they conflict with our intellect. Beyond the obvious dangers of such an approach to any legal system, in the case of Bar Kamtza it would also have meant rejecting the offering, for the entire concept of burning animals on an altar comes from texts and not from the intellect!
    Whatever the Talmud's point is, it is unlikely that it is relevant in ordinary circumstances, coming as it does in a situation of national danger. Regardless, it is a hard sell to argue that this one quote is the central message of Tisha B’Av. Compare it with this one: "Rabbi Yochanan stated, 'Jerusalem was destroyed because the residents limited their decisions to the letter of the law of the Torah, and did not perform actions that would have gone beyond the letter of the law'" (Baba Metzia 30b). In Talmudic parlance, going beyond the letter of the law ("lifnim mishurat hadin") means being more stringent than the text, not less.
    More than any one Talmudic or Midrashic source, Tisha B’Av must be judged based on how we observe it. Tisha B’Av is not a day of criticizing our approach to Halacha, Tisha B’Av is not a day of battling sinat chinam, and Tisha B’Av is not a day of repentance or prayer. Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning. Mourning for the lost Temple, mourning for the lack of the Shechinah, and mourning for the destroyed Kingdom of David. On Tisha B’Av we fast, sit on the floor and recite Kinot, dirges that bemoan the destroyed Temple and the many tragedies of our long exile.

    The question of how active a role Jews should take in bringing about the redemption is an ancient one, probably as old as the exile itself. Of course, many sources can be cited in support of both sides of this debate – if it were simple, there would be no debate. The starting point for this discussion is the Talmud in Ketubot 111a. If you are interested, you can read more about this here:

    Shilo! Your mesirat nefesh for Israel is an inspiration.

  4. Rabbi Gordon

    But of course I hear what you are saying and agree with this, however, lo bashamim he, is also a central concept and I think this is what is also being brought out by these sugiot.

    What has been given has been given, and from that point forward it is up to us to do with it how we see fit, within rules and guidelines and yet there are extreme times when extreme measures should/must apply.

    If during the second temple there was prophesy and outcomes could be known, we can conjecture that there are things that would have been done differently.

    There are time for a stricter more letter of the law approach and there are times when this simply is not correct.