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The saddest day in the Jewish year is nearly upon us, and from sundown Wednesday August 2 until three stars appear in the Thursday-night sky, Jews around the world will be fasting as they mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem - both of which fell on the ninth of Av (Tisha Be'av).
But what is the real meaning of this fast? Are we mourning the destruction of the city? Even in the midst of a war, with Kassams and Katyushas falling in the South and the North, the Jerusalem we encounter today is hardly the desolate capital of Jeremiah, the city he compared to a mourning widow. Our eyes and hearts tell us that today's city, despite our present difficulties, is splendid, majestic, bejeweled.
For some it's a black-and-white issue. We fast because we see a mosque instead of the Holy Temple. This is certainly significant, but what of the years when the Second Temple stood?
Josephus in his classic work, Antiquities of the Jews, says the fast continued into the Second Commonwealth era. Maimonides writes that even when the Second Temple stood, the Jews continued their fast (Maimonides, Interpretation of the Mishna Rosh Hashana 3,11).
So our question grows more poignant: When the Third Temple is built, will the fast finally be suspended, or will we still enter synagogues throughout the world, dim the lights, sit on the ground like mourners, and listen with trembling hearts to the achingly painful tune of Jeremiah's lamentations?
For our times - the twilight years between the end of exile and the start of Redemption - the deeper meaning of what this fast is all about can be found in Zechariah, who prophesied during the end of the 70-year Babylonian exile, when the Temple was being rebuilt with the support of Cyrus, who offered the Jews a chance to return to their homeland. A small percentage did so, but then the Jews of Babylon didn't know what to do about the Ninth of Av. They sent a delegation to Judea while the Second Temple was being rebuilt with the following question to the prophet Zechariah, "Should I weep in the fifth month, separating myself as I have done these many years?" (Ch. 7:3).
And the word of God comes to Zechariah: "Speak to all the people of the land. When you fasted and you mourned in the fifth month.... was it for me that you really fasted? And when you did eat and you did drink, did you not eat for yourselves and drink for yourselves?" (Ch. 7:4-6). And the word of God comes again, saying, "Execute true judgment and show loyal love and mercy every man to his brother, and do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the stranger or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against his brother in your heart" (Ch. 7:8-10).
Further on in the book of Zechariah, the word of God again comes to him: "The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall become times of joy and gladness, cheerful festivals to the house of Judah. Therefore love the truth and peaceâ€¦" (8-19).
In other words, it's not enough that Jerusalem's Ben-Yehuda Street has kosher pizzerias. It's not enough that we have Jewish sovereignty over a Jewish state, a Knesset and the largest yeshiva in the world. To cease fasting on Tisha Be'av is merely a means to an end - a means to repentance, particularly in the subtle areas of human relationships. We will stop fasting when the entire nation leads ethical and moral lives. We will stop fasting when Iran and North Korea understand the value of peace. We will stop fasting when.... the messianic age dawns.
"In those days it shall come to pass that 10 men out of all the languages of the nations shall take hold, and shall seize the corner of the garment of him who is a Jew, saying: 'We will go with you, for we have heard that God is with you' " (Zechariah 8:23).
Zechariah's choice of words is truth and peace. Without the basic morality of the seven Noahide laws, emphasizing Thou shalt not murder, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not commit adultery, without the realization that jihad against all who reject a specific teaching is false, there can be no peace, and without peace there will be no world of freedom, pluralism and morality.
When the hour finally comes in which the whole world loves truth and peace, then we'll be dancing in the streets on Tisha Be'av, the most vivid expression of the end of our long exile, and it'll be like no other dance a nation has ever danced.
One thing is for sure: it won't be the bossa nova, the twist or the tango. It won't even be the hora. It'll be a celebration of truth and peace, a new dance that will see us join hands with the entire world. (See Maimonides, end of Laws of Fasting.)
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.
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