I write this column as the Nine Days begin. Culminating in the Fast of Tisha
Be’av on Monday night-Tuesday, this week-plus in the Jewish calendar is arguably
the darkest period in the Jewish year, as we sadly commemorate and contemplate
the destruction of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem and our exile from the Holy
Yet every year, at least for the last four and a half decades, many
have questioned the relevancy of this somber event. For have we not witnessed
the marvelous return to and rebirth of our glorious capital city? Is Jerusalem
not the “built-up city that has been joined together,” as King David sang
prophetically in his 122nd Psalm? Anyone who has walked through the City of Gold
in the last few years cannot help but be astonished at the diversity and depth
of beauty which defines our largest city. Anyone who has lately visited the
Western Wall – the world’s seventh-most visited site – cannot but be impressed
by the crush of humanity that supplicates and sways before these ancient stones.
Among its thousands of visitors each day are numerous brides and grooms, whose
pilgrimage to this holy place to seek God’s blessing for their upcoming marriage
offers the most graphic realization of that ancient promise, pronounced under
every huppa: “There will yet be heard again in the cities of Judea and the
confines of Jerusalem the sounds of joy and celebration, the voice of groom and
Why, then, do we continue to carry on so mournfully for a lost
commonwealth, when are so blessed with a magnificent and miraculous Israel?
Indeed, there are numerous rabbis and poets who do attempt to “modernize” the
prayers of Tisha Be’av, acknowledging the good fortune that has been bestowed
upon us of late, thanking the Almighty for our return to Zion and Jerusalem,
even as we recall the destructions which sent us into a bitter 2,000-year
Yet I suggest that while we must be filled with gladness and
gratitude for all we have been given, we must never lose sight of all that we
have lost, or all that is yet to be accomplished.
Tisha Be’av is our
sacred opportunity to remember the troubles and tragedies that have befallen our
nation over these many centuries. It is our national day of mourning, if you
will, for all the catastrophes perpetrated upon us throughout history. It begins
with that very first calamitous ninth of Av, when the spies sent to scout out
Israel – and the entire nation, by extension – rebelled against God and cried at
the very thought of conquering Canaan and making aliya to the Promised
“You wept needlessly on that night,” the sages quote God as saying,
as if to a naughty child, “but I will give you good reason to cry on this date
in the future.”
Our stubborn resistance to claiming our land as our
exclusive natural habitat has spelled doom for us throughout all the
And so Tisha Be’av has become synonymous with our suffering.
We lost both the First and Second Temples on this date; we lost our independence
when Betar fell 52 years after the Temple was destroyed, and Jerusalem was
plowed over like a field by the Romans.
We were expelled from Spain on 9
Av, 1492, and World War I started on Tisha Be’av, August 1, 1914, setting the
stage for Germany’s impending adoption of the Final Solution.
Be’av we remember all these disasters, and more. We have special kinot, elegies,
for the destruction of the Jewish communities of the Rhineland during the first
and second Crusades; the massacre of the Jews of York in the England of 1190;
the public burning of the Torah and Talmud by the French in 1242; and, of
course, the manifold horrors of the Holocaust.
The haunting words of the
Prophet Jeremiah, who served as a personal eyewitness to Jerusalem’s demise,
rings in our ears: “Eicha yashva badad,” alas she sits alone, in solitude. This
phrase not only recalls the fall of the holy city, but all the many times
throughout history when we faced our oppression alone, with no one coming to our
aid, no one willing to lend a hand to repel the crimes and cruelty being
perpetrated upon us.
That loneliness, epitomizing our fate as “the lamb
at the mercy of 70 wolves,” must fill us with bitterness and shame, until this
And, it should be noted, our travails did not end with our
return to the land.
All the terror we have endured here, from Hebron to
Itamar, from Gush Etzion to the Park Hotel; all the thousands of casualties
among our holy armed forces in the IDF; all the suicide-bombings and drive-by
shootings and stonings on the roads – all these are part and parcel of the tears
of Tisha Be’av.
Memory, as Elie Wiesel so famously wrote, is the key to
redemption. And so we invoke that memory even as we sit low with our Book of
Lamentations on the eve of the fast.
But the past is not our only focus
on Tisha Be’av. We must also confront the fact that, with all our admirable
achievements and resurrection as a preeminent nation, we are still far from
realizing our status as a “holy people and assembly of priests.” The baseless
hatred, the sense of false piety and the vicious infighting among brothers that
characterized the Temple’s destruction is far from eradicated within our
When I left Israel recently for a short speaking
tour, it was on the heels of any number of scandals being played out in
Jerusalem. One of these, the struggle to elect a new chief rabbi – a process
which ought to be a model for civility and spirituality – had turned
particularly ugly, as a former chief rabbi sank so low as to call a potential
future chief rabbi a rasha, a term we reserve for only the most evil of
villains, such as Haman or Balaam.
All the while, a present chief rabbi
sits under house arrest for embezzlement of charitable funds.
arrival in the United States, I opened The New York Times – the world’s most
read newspaper – to see a large article on the death of Marc Rich, the infamous
fugitive financier, who fled to Switzerland when indicted by the US on 65 counts
of tax evasion, fraud and illegal dealings with Iran, helping the rogue,
Nazi-like state sell its oil while under an embargo by America for taking the
hostages in Tehran. Though high on the FBI’s most wanted list, Rich – an apt
name, if ever there was one! – avoided prosecution and was eventually pardoned
by Bill Clinton, who slipped his name on to the presidential pardon list –
without going through normal vetting procedure – on the very last day of his
term. Later, it was revealed that the Rich family had given millions to Clinton
for his presidential library.
The article made no fewer than 13
references to Rich’s Jewish background, Israel and the Holocaust, making the
clear link between a Jew, injustice and living in the lap of luxury. As an
exclamation point, the Times ended the piece by quoting a Fortune magazine
exposé on Rich’s extravagant life in exile: “The enormously gifted fugitive from
justice takes another puff on his cigar and sips his wine and decides to take a
dip in his $9.5-million swimming pool.
Why not?” Granted, The New York
Times drools at the chance to make Jews look bad, but what impression must this
article make on the world at large? Does it cast us as a “light unto the
nations”? And did the fugitive’s numerous acts of philanthropy justify the many
rabbis and Jewish “leaders” who petitioned Clinton for his pardon? Poor Jonathan
Pollard – literally; I guess he never earned enough to buy a
Just a day later, the same Times reported on 19 Jewish
“charities” currently under indictment by the New York courts for pocketing
millions, while falsely claiming to assist the poor, help victims of terror and
fight leukemia in Israel.
We are a great and wondrous people, and we have
accomplished great and wondrous things. But we have a long way to go to perfect
our moral character, to increase our love for one another, to end our
internecine battles and unite in faith, peace and harmony. The tears we shed on
Tisha Be’av are not only for the pain of past punishments; they are just as much
for our present indiscretions and the failure to perfect our souls in cause and
character. As much as we long to rebuild Jerusalem’s House of God, we must first
build ourselves, so that we are truly worthy to dwell in that house. The
writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana;