Friday, July 17, begins the semi-mourning period popularly known as “The Nine Days.” Culminating in Tisha Be’av – one of only two 25-hour fasts in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur being the other – this period calls for a lessening of festivities, a moratorium on weddings and a general mood of solemnity.
This is a calamitous chunk of our calendar, for it was during these dates that numerous catastrophes befell the Jewish people, the most devastating of which were the destruction of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem and the loss of our independence.
It is a tribute to our culture – not to mention an ongoing proof of our eternal history – that we are prepared to draw attention to our failings and foibles no less than to our successes and celebrations, in a constant struggle for self-improvement. As every athlete knows, you learn more from your losses than from your wins, and so each year we struggle to understand what went wrong, why and how the events of the “Black Fast” occurred, and what we can do to rectify those mistakes so they will not happen again.
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We do this despite our full admission that we have blessedly “turned the corner” of history, that the reestablishment of the State of Israel now allows us to focus on a glorious future and not solely look behind us to the gloomy past.
The Rabbis of the Talmud make it crystal clear that the hurban, the Destruction, was a function of our own sinful actions, and not the result of some political or military decision imposed on us from the outside. As a preeminent people that continually defies the norms of history, it is we ourselves, and not those around us, who control our fate. If we so merit it, no force can dislodge us. But if we fail to live up to the high standard set for us, then “the Almighty has many messengers” at His disposal. As the Talmud succinctly puts it, the Romans were not responsible for our defeat; they were merely “grinding already-ground flour.”
It is therefore worthwhile to review the comments of our Sages regarding Tisha Be’av, to see if we have made any progress over the last 2,000 years.
Tractate Shabbat lists several reasons for the tragedy, beginning, appropriately, with Abaye’s statement that Jerusalem was destroyed due to desecration of the Shabbat.
In halachic terms, Shabbat is not only considered the most important holiday of the year – surpassing even Yom Kippur – but it is the primary yardstick by which we measure religious commitment. It is the one question we ask to qualify potential witnesses (e.g., to a wedding), and it was one of a very few ritual commandments whose violation could actually result in the death penalty being administered by a human court.
But the significance of Shabbat is not only a legal consideration; Shabbat is what gives the Jewish state its uniqueness, its soul, its spiritual core. It is the single most important ingredient in preventing Israel from falling into the trap of becoming a state like any other state. And it is remarkable how Shabbat in Israel has made such an amazing “comeback” in recent years, as we have seen some of even the most nonobservant kibbutzim building on-site synagogues, and study programs as well as batei knesset in Tel Aviv fill to capacity each Shabbat. Ra’anana, I’m proud to say, boasts 85 synagogues – and more on the way. “Seven days without Shabbat,” it’s been said, “makes one weak!” Rabbi Hamnuna comments, “Jerusalem was destroyed because we neglected the education of our young.” Israel struggles with its education system – overcrowded classrooms, changes in the matriculation requirements with each new education minister, overall lack of decorum – but on the whole, we turn out some pretty bright students.
We have one of the highest literacy rates in the world (97.8 percent) and we spend 7.5% of our GDP on education – more than Canada, Japan, America, England or Australia.
Want to know just how “smart” we are? Go into any kindergarten, and talk to the children. They’ll make you want to go back to school! Ula remarks: “Jerusalem was destroyed because there was not enough shame between people.” We are a society that is often high on blame but short on shame. Blame deflects our problems onto others and impedes our self-improvement.
But shame can actually be a virtue; it can keep our ego and our arrogance in check – if we get ashamed by the right things – and lead us back to more pristine behavior.
I am ashamed when our country shows leniency to terrorists; when drivers lose control and act rudely and belligerently on our highways; when MKs fail to act with dignity and decorum in the Knesset; when “rabbis” abuse their power (and their congregants); when I succumb to anger, disillusion or lack of faith. Shame is the emotional partner of humility, and humility is the doorway to enlightenment and respect for others.
Rabbi Yitzhak: “Jerusalem was destroyed because we did not rebuke one another.” This is dangerous ground, because it is ever so risky to suggest to anyone that what they are doing is wrong.
For who decides what is right or wrong? (“Who are you, Mr. Perfect, to tell me what to do?”) The plague of political correctness has virtually silenced any widespread attempt to comment negatively on the actions of others, let alone on the mores of society itself. We are tolerant, the saying goes, of everything – except intolerance.
In effect, we are living in the “anti-Musar age,” when individual rights reign supreme, and anyone who dares criticize someone else’s behavior is either reactionary, racist or just plain rotten.
As society continues to test the limits of interpersonal behavior, we face the dilemma of either alienating our neighbor, or watching helplessly as what we once called decency sinks into the dust.
Perhaps Rabbi Yitzhak is warning us that either you stand for something, or you fall for everything.
We are all familiar with the famous statement in tractate Yoma: “The first Holy Temple was destroyed [by Babylonia] because the people committed acts of violence, immorality and idolatry.
And the second? Though the community was scholarly, performed mitzvot and engaged in acts of hessed-kindness, it was destroyed [by the Romans] because of sin’at hinam (baseless hatred).”
Note the seeming paradox, the disconnect between the ability to do hessed for others while still harboring animosity toward them. The antidote to sin’at hinam, I suggest, is the call to “love your neighbor as yourself.” That is, to accept others just as we accept ourselves – with all our faults and with all our flaws.
Finally, Rabbi Yohanan sums it all up: “Jerusalem was destroyed because we judged others to the full extent that the law allowed and did not go beyond the letter of the law.” Comment the Rabbis: There were ample reasons, as cited above, to justify the breakdown of the commonwealth. Yet had we shown flexibility, leniency and more compassion, then God, too, might have gone easy on us. But since we were rigid and unyielding, so was God. In short, as you judge others, so shall you be judged.
Tisha Be’av is the gateway to our next holiday, Rosh Hashana, and the Ten Days of Repentance. If we learn the lessons of Jerusalem’s destruction, we can complete its rebuilding and turn the fast into a feast.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; firstname.lastname@example.org