Tisha Be'Av Prayer.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
This year I didn’t fast on Tisha Be’av. Of course, no one else did either. The date dedicated to commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples coincided with Shabbat, postponing the customs of mourning by 24 hours. The deferral provided a rare opportunity to glimpse the world as it might become in the glorified end of days.
Unlike other rituals specified in the Torah that we have been enjoined to perform for eternity, the observance of the four fasts relating to the devastation of Jerusalem are ultimately to be suspended. “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 for the house of Judah delight and gladness and joyful seasons,” prophesied Zechariah, who continued: “therefore love ye truth and peace.”
So, on my way to synagogue on Shabbat morning, I allowed myself a moment of delusion, imagining the prophecy come true. In an era of “truth and peace” this is what it would be like every Tisha Be’av. There was symbolism even in the cool and refreshing breeze that came to replace the particularly stifling heat wave that had characterized the somber three weeks leading up to the day of lamentations.
And the children romping gleefully in the playgrounds I passed through provided ample testimony that Jeremiah’s prophecy of “an end to the voices of joy and gladness… in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem” had run its course, yielding, after 2,000 years, to the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of the “return to Zion in singing and delight” when “the voice of weeping shall no more be heard, nor the voice of crying.”
“Take comfort, My people, be consoled. Speak to the heart of Jerusalem. Let her know that she has served her sentence.” The fast had not even begun and I found myself already reciting the prophetic reading for the coming Shabbat Nahamu, the first of the seven of consolation following Tisha Be’av. Had the time already come to suspend its observance? The question accompanied me that evening as I made my way to the promenade in Talpiot, with its resplendent view of the Temple Mount and Old City walls. Hundreds gather here each year to listen to the chanting of the Book of Lamentations, Jeremiah’s dirge on the destruction of Jerusalem.
The words are words of sorrow but the assemblage on the promenade was one of solace. In an all-toorare demonstration of harmony, this extemporaneous congregation includes representatives of an unusually wide range of religious observance. Those reciting the elegy for all to hear included women. No one objected or left in protest. The common denominator of those present was an internalization of the perils of baseless hatred.
Its dangers have been assailed in numerous commentaries in Israel’s media over much of the last month; current events have provided more than enough fodder to feed the pundits intent on warning that history, waiting impatiently in the wings to repeat itself, is becoming ever more assertive and difficult to restrain.
Drawing the ire of many, I did just that in my last column, sounding a cautionary note with regard to societal trends that I fear could have disastrous outcomes if left unchecked. Speaking out on the consequences of errant behavior is in the best of our tradition; so is having faith in our ability to right ourselves, repair the world and avert the evil decree.
When Tisha Be’av ends, the mood in the city changes. I wander through the Mamilla Mall – an architectural gem deftly integrating the ancient and the contemporary below Jaffa Gate, which yesterday I viewed only from a distance, and discover that love is in the air.
At least the marketable strain of it. Tu Be’av is only a few days away, an Israeli Valentine’s Day of sorts, loosely fashioned on the tradition of the Second Temple period in which unmarried women would don simple white dresses (so that those who could afford no more would not be at a disadvantage), and wander into the vineyards singing, dancing and seeking suitors. Never mind that the day has been commercialized beyond recognition.
The promise of romance is a welcome one after the period of abstinence we have just been through. I may not be thrilled that there will be more people enjoying dinner by candlelight than there were who read Lamentations by candlelight, but I, too, am tired of the exhausting tensions we live with day in and day out. Hungry from the fast, I find myself gorging on the plethora of holiday come-ons, eagerly submitting to the various temptations with which to entice my wife under the glow of the approaching full moon.
In the meantime, the question persists. What significance can there be in observing Tisha Be’av when everywhere we are witness to the wonders of return? There are those who would do away with the day of grieving because they are not interested in a Temple rebuilt and animal sacrifice renewed. Others extol the spiritual and cultural heights Judaism has reached in the Diaspora and believe the emphasis on the ingathering of the exiles to be misguided. And some maintain that with the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel and a rebuilt Jerusalem as our capital, there is simply no longer any meaning in mourning.
But Tisha Be’av was never only about the Temple, sovereignty and Jerusalem. It was – and must remain – about the social order we establish here. During the coming weeks, the traditional biblical readings will encompass not only prophecies of consolation, but also a long compilation of commandments regarding the sort of society we were to create after crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land. Whatever one’s interpretation of these injunctions, there can be no arguing that we are far from having fulfilled them. As the fast of Yom Kippur offers us an opportunity for personal introspection, the fast of Tisha Be’av provides an occasion for national soulsearching in pursuit of the “truth and peace” that will turn fasting into feasting. There is much meaning in our tradition that the Messiah will be born on Tisha Be’av and, according to some, arrive on that day as well.
In the meantime, though he or she may not have come this year, neither was Jerusalem destroyed. I’ll settle.
No, more than that. On this Shabbat of consolation I will allow myself to be consoled and even to rejoice in the miracle of a Jewish state reborn. And when tomorrow I roll up my sleeves and again apply myself to the nitty-gritty grind of repairing the world, it will be with a renewed appreciation for all the extraordinary accomplishments spawned by the Zionist enterprise and the heights to which we continue to aspire.
The author is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of the Jewish Agency Executive. The opinions expressed herein are his own.