Tisha Be’av, the fast of the Ninth of Av that falls today, is a time for introspection, not solely or even principally on an individual level, but on a national level.
The date marks the anniversaries of the destruction of both the First and Second Temples and, perhaps more significantly, the end of Jewish sovereignty and exile first in 586 BCE and again in 70 CE.
Not surprisingly, for the secular Zionists, who successfully initiated the return of the Jewish people to their land while most of their more traditional brethren awaited heavenly intervention, Tisha Be’av did not fit nicely into the new national narrative.
While novel interpretations could be injected into Jewish holidays such as Shavuot and Hanukka to help construct a Zionist ideology that built a continuum between ancient past and radical present and added legitimacy to the Zionist revolution, Tisha Be’av was largely ignored. And this was not just because the date inevitably fell during summer vacation when children were away from the influences of state-run schools.
There was, for Zionists, a fundamental and understandable difficulty in identifying with devastation, destruction and exile from Israel at a time when Jewish sovereignty in the Promised Land had been restored and the ingathering of the Diaspora was unfolding before their eyes.
And though the secular Zionist leadership – in particular David Ben-Gurion with his weekly Bible class in his home attended by the young state’s luminaries – encouraged a renewed interest in the Bible, this interest was focused on books deemed to be relevant. Joshua was studied because it told of the conquest of the Land of Israel by the second generation of Jews who left Egypt. Isaiah, who foresaw the redemption, and Amos who focused on social justice, were prophets who also had a message for Zionists of the nascent state.
But Prophet Jeremiah, most associated with Tisha Be’av – according to rabbinic tradition he wrote Lamentations which is publicly read on this day – was largely ignored. After all, Jeremiah counseled submission to the rule of Babylon, thereby renouncing Jewish political sovereignty. What kind of message was that for a generation of Jews who had embarked on the task of state building? To this day the state secular high school system’s Bible study program places relatively little emphasis on the Book of Jeremiah, except for the story of the tragic assassination of Gedalia ben Ahikam. Because it was the result of internecine intrigues in the wake of the destruction of the First Temple and was a symptom of societal violence and zealotry that knows no bounds in the fight for political dominance, Gedalia’s murder is compared with the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin on November 4, 1995.
But perhaps the time has come for Israeli society to revisit the Book of Jeremiah and reassess the relevance of Tisha Be’av as a day for collective introspection.
Though Jeremiah is known primarily for prophesying destruction, most of his life was a struggle to teach the Jewish people that it was in their power to prevent that destruction. And this is a remarkably relevant message for a firmly established State of Israel coping with the collapse of the old Labor Party-melting pot ethos.
The task is no longer putting aside all differences for the sake of focusing on building a Jewish state from scratch. The challenge for contemporary Israel is, rather, finding a cultural common denominator that enables a society increasingly splintered into a collection of unabashedly self-asserting tribes – haredi, religious Zionist, secular – to live in peace and mutual respect with all the complexities that set them apart.
Jeremiah tried – and failed – to warn Judea’s kings (Josiah, Jehoiakim and Zedekiah) of the limits of power and of the deceivingly reassuring presence of the Temple as though this were a sign of God’s favor. Nor did they heed Jeremiah’s prophecies emphasizing the importance of social justice – caring for the weakest among us, rooting out corruption, maintaining law and order.
On the 65th Tisha Be’av since the establishment of the State of Israel, we should remind ourselves of Jeremiah’s lessons left unlearned during previous attempts at Jewish sovereignty and work to ensure that mistakes made in the past are not repeated.