By Rabbi Stacey Blank
What can Tisha B’Av mean today?
Tisha B’Av is not a day ordained by G-d in the Torah, but rather it is an observance that was created by people in reaction to an event: The destruction of the First Temple. This was a tragic and traumatic time for the Jewish people and the leaders felt a need to create a new ritual – to help people recover from the trauma, to integrate the experience in order to move on, and later on, to commemorate the experience to preserve the memory.
Throughout history, other events “joined” this day – the destruction of the Second Temple, the first expulsion of Jews from England, the Spanish Inquisition marking the expulsion of Jews from Spain, and most recently the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust. As well as events that pre-date the destruction of the Temple – for example, the tradition teaches that this is also the day the spies that Moses sent to scout the land of Israel returned with a bad report.
There was obviously a need for this type of commemoration as Jews continued to observe it for over two thousand years. Again, it is not a day commanded by G-d. It is a day that we people created for ourselves to help us deal as a collective nation with an event that grieves us. Jewish communities have been doing this throughout history – calling for a fast in the community when a local tragedy occurs. And this is exactly what the State of Israel did, for example, in creating Yom HaShoah after Pesach, on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
How do we and how should we observe Tisha B’Av today, especially when we live the miracle of the modern State of Israel?
In Jerusalem, you feel Tisha B’Av in that it is a quieter day with less traffic. There are shop owners who choose to close, but much of the everyday life of the city is open. City employees have the day off. If you go to the Western Wall (which was the retaining wall of the Temple) throughout the night, you actually feel like you are at a big party and the atmosphere often feels far from mournful. Outside of Jerusalem, it is a regular day and most people go about their normal business without any reminder of the day in the public space. And I’ve been told that many people abroad, except for the strictly observant, don’t even know what the day is.
As a Jew whose aim is to synthesize tradition with the modern world, I believe that we need to re-examine and redefine the purpose and meaning of Tisha B’Av. I don’t mourn the destruction of the Temple in and of itself and I don’t pray for the establishment of a Third Temple, nor for a messiah, nor for the re-establishment of animal sacrifice. What I do is participate in the memory of loss – a function so crucial to the survival of the Jewish people, just as I participate in the memory of liberation at the Pesach seder. I want to give honor to those who gave their lives and suffered for the greater good and for the survival of the Jewish people. In Israel, a few events are being organized by liberal communities to use Tisha B’Av as a day of raising awareness for social responsibility within our society. I think this is certainly a welcome venture.
I see my fast today – as well as my prayer, my study, and my visit to the site of the Temple — as my identification with those who suffered – from those who suffered from the destruction of the Temple and the conquests of Israel by world empires whether they suffered death, injury, starvation, or loss of faith to the Jews who suffered persecution throughout history.
Reform Judaism teaches us not to limit our concern to only Jews as we see ourselves as part of the great family of humanity. Therefore, I also see Tisha B’Av as an opportunity to raise awareness of suffering in the world — from those who are being returned to South Sudan to a land of poverty and starvation, to those innocent victims of the civil war ravaging our neighbor Syria. And if one should ask how I can identify with the suffering of our would-be “enemies” or with a non-Jew in general – at least let us think of the children and babies. I fast to remind myself that fasting for one day is really nothing compared to the daily suffering of so many millions of people.
Our ceremonies and study need to help us develop our empathy for the plight of others. This year, I studied with Rabbi Ada Zavidov at Congregation Har El about the tears of the Sages and tried to understand and identify with their feelings of anguish. I heard the book of Lamentations chanted and read and imagined the images that inspired the prophet to write his lamenting of the destruction of the First Temple and Jerusalem as he did. I visited the Old City of Jerusalem and gave an impromptu tour to non-Jewish visitors (friends of a friend) from Spain and tried to recreate in my mind – as well as to convey to them — what took place there that brought about such destruction and mourning. I spoke with my children about ahavat chinam – the importance of baseless love and giving – which our tradition teaches us for this reason the Temple was built in the first place. I thought about what I can do for future Tisha B’Av days that can further these ideas and introspection.
And I gathered inspiration for the day after Tisha B’Av when I will return to the everyday world and with hope that I have more strength and wisdom to strive for a just and loving society.
Rabbi Stacey Blank served as the rabbi of Congregation Darchei Noam, an IMPJ Congregation in Ramat HaSharon, from 2007-2012. She helps facilitate the relationship between the youth organizations BBYO and Tzameret, as well working with families and individuals who arrive from abroad, mainly performing bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies and weddings. This post was originally published on her blog.