Tisha Be’av is almost here and it brings to an end the three-week cycle of fasting and mourning that began on 17 Tamuz. Over the last three weeks, there have been various restrictions observed primarily in the Ashkenazi communities for the entire period (Sephardi communities mostly implement these restrictions only for the week of the fast itself), which include shaving, haircuts and public celebrations.
From Rosh Hodesh Av, limited bathing, laundering, meat and wine consumption were added to the list, and finally 9 Av (which is observed on the 10th this year because the 9th falls on Shabbat) starts a 25-hour fast that imitates Yom Kippur in its additional restrictions: food, drink, sexual relations, lotions/oils and leather shoes.
Unlike Yom Kippur, which is a day spent in atonement and reflection so that the fast is meant to inspire us to focus our thoughts upward in spiritual contemplation, on Tisha Be’av, the fast is meant to move us downward, as we sit on the floor to mourn the destruction of the Temple 2,000 years ago.
It is important to remember that in less than 70 years, the Jews of antiquity lost three major wars: The great revolt of 66-74 CE, which led to a major change in Jewish practice since there was no more sacrificial cult, priesthood or sacred center; the uprising of the Jews in Egypt and Cyprus (115-117 CE), which marked the end of the Golden Age of Jews of Alexandria; and the Bar Kochba Rebellion (132-135 CE), which resulted in the prohibition on Jews living in Jerusalem.
The initial rabbinic response was silence, presumably burdened by the weight of memory.
Stunned by the width and breadth of their grief, there was nothing to say beyond the primal, pain-filled, mortal cry of Lamentations itself.
The rabbis of the Tannaim period did not write laments or seek refuge in apocalyptic ideas. They devoted energy to creating a religious system to ensure the survival of Judaism. Silence is broken in the talmudic area (from 400 CE onward). Anecdotes, stories, dreams begin to emerge, many against the backdrop of biblical text using the format we call midrash – to interpret. Through midrash, the rabbis seek answers and resolutions to some of the inexplicable issues raised by the destruction.
In Leviticus Raba 20:5, the midrash questions the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, on the eighth day of commemorating the Tabernacle. It introduces the voice of The Holy One, Blessed be He, struggling to reconcile with His own course of action: “Shall the sons of Aaron not be even like his rod which entered dry and came out full of sap?”
The death of the innocent is presented through the images of violent Roman destruction of the Temple. “The wicked Titus entered the interior of the Holy of Holies with his sword drawn in his hand. He cut into the curtain and his sword came out full of blood. He [Titus] entered in peace and departed in peace, yet the sons of Aaron came in to offer incense and came out burnt...” The midrash, with God as narrator, questions how wickedness and bloodshed can go unpunished while the righteous are cut down.
The idea of God suffering along with His people despite His own Divine decree to unleash such devastation onto the world is a prominent one. God says to the wicked (Leviticus Raba 20): “The righteous were never happy in this world of Mine, and you seek to be happy!”
God Himself cannot be truly happy in this world. In Psalms it is written, “The Lord will rejoice,” (Psalms 104:31), as much as to say: God will only in the Time to Come rejoice in the works of the righteous, but He will not rejoice in this world because of the suffering and pain of His people. Joy can turn to mourning instantaneously and we, together with God, live in the precarious fragility of that awareness throughout our lives.
But, within the darkness of the discussions, there also emerge glimmers of consolation and hope. The Talmud tells a story in Brachot 3a of Rabbi Yossi who seeks to enter the ruins of Jerusalem to pray despite both physical and spiritual danger and rabbinic warnings against entering such ruins. People are drawn to the Temple ruins in the aftermath of destruction. As the story reveals, Rabbi Yossi is not only searching among the ruins for the world that was, he is seeking out a Heavenly voice that weeps three times a day in anguish over the Divine destruction and exile of His people.
The story, however, continues with the perceptive words of Elijah the prophet who comes to teach Rabbi Yossi that there is something greater than witnessing Heavenly grief. He reveals to him that, “when Israel enters synagogues and study halls and answers, ‘May His great name be blessed,’ the Holy One, blessed be He, shakes his head and says, ‘Happy is the king who is thus praised in his house.’ Woe to the father who exiled his children and woe to the children who were exiled from their father’s table.”
God’s voice pities the father who exiled his children, along with the children exiled, but there is happiness now for the king who is praised in his house by his people. Rabbi Yossi is taught that the commemoration of the Temple continues in the space of the synagogue and study hall where there is renewed interaction with the Divine.
This refocusing of the mourning away from the Temple towards rebuilding God’s house through prayer and Torah study was eminently successful. This shift, from mourning to rebuilding, also served to preserve the yearning for the return to the land and the sacred space of Jerusalem, where God’s actual presence was waiting to reconnect to His people for all of the years of exile.
Ironically, as a result for many Jews, there is difficulty to find contemporary meaning in this period of time. We have Jewish independence in the Land of Israel. We are living in a rebuilt Jerusalem with freedom of worship and more Torah learning than ever in Jewish history.
Nonetheless, these nine days allow us to mindfully remember the destruction of what was, the thousands of years yearning to return and, finally, the transformative power of rebuilding and reconnecting.