This coming Saturday night, Jews around the world will gather together to commemorate Tisha Be’av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, when we recall many of the frightful tragedies that have befallen our people down through history.
Since the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av falls out this year on Shabbat, the observance of the fast day is deferred until the evening.
Tisha Be’av is a 25-hour period marked by fasting and mourning, the reading of the Book of Lamentations and the recitation of dirges and elegies, a day shrouded in somberness and solemnity that sits like a black hole of sorrow on our collective national timetable. And yet, in one of those delicious ironies which exemplifies Jewish eschatology and thought, Tisha Be’av is also the day when the seeds of deliverance are planted.
How can this possibly be? Indeed, the list of calamities which coincided with Tisha Be’av over the millennia is simply mind-numbing, ranging from the destruction of the two Temples in ancient Jerusalem to the expulsion of English Jewry in 1290 and Spanish Jewry in 1492.
In his commentary on the book of Jeremiah, the great Jewish philosopher, financier and statesman Don Isaac Abarbanel, who, together with the rest of Spain’s Jews, was exiled by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, noted that, “It turns out that the day set for the departure from Spain was Tisha Be’av, but the king did not know the character of the day when he issued his edict.
It was as if he had been led from above to fix this time.”
Other disasters associated with Tisha Be’av include the establishment of the ghetto for the Jews of Rome in 1555, Cossack massacres of Polish and Ukrainian Jews in 1648 and the start of World War One.
And just over a decade ago, on the day after Tisha Be’av, the Israeli government forcibly uprooted and expelled more than 8,000 Jews from their homes in Gush Katif and northern Samaria, a wound that remains unhealed until today.
And yet, somehow, amid all the melancholy and gloom, Jewish tradition assures us that Tisha Be’av, this awful, wretched and blood-soaked day, will nonetheless be transformed into nothing less than a day of delight.
The prophet Zechariah famously articulated this when he said that the fast days observed by the Jewish people would eventually become “joyous and happy, good seasons for the house of Judah.”
And Maimonides, in his compendium of Jewish law known as the Mishneh Torah, codified this when he wrote, “All these fasts will be annulled in the days of the Messiah. Moreover, they will become holidays and days of joy and happiness” (Laws of Fasts 19:19).
What are we to make of all this? After all, it would seem logical to posit that fast days such as Tisha Be’av should be forgotten or completely swept aside once redemption arrives, their painful memories engulfed and overtaken by exultation at Israel’s deliverance. And yet, we are told, these days on the Jewish calendar will persist, albeit with a fundamentally altered theme, one awash in rejoicing.
What could this conceivably mean? By their very nature, occasions such as Tisha Be’av, and the events they memorialize, remind us of a sad yet salient fact of Jewish history: our unity often comes through most strongly only when it is imposed upon us by outside forces who threaten our very existence.
Neither the Crusaders nor the Nazis paused to ask whether someone was Ashkenazi or Sephardi, pious or unlearned, before slaughtering a Jew. And when a Palestinian terrorist launches an attack, he doesn’t stop to assess whether his intended victim is wearing a black velvet kippa, a crocheted kippa or no headcovering at all.
The catastrophes we mark on Tisha Be’av struck all Jews across the centuries regardless of their political, social, economic or religious standing.
But amid all that suffering, there was a kernel of hope, a spark of eternity, something that could not be quashed. However briefly or fleetingly, Jews were made to realize that we are all in this together, whether we like one another or not.
So once better days come, and Israel is at last reunified and redeemed, we will be able to look back on Tisha Be’av and other such junctures, and recognize that our unity, even when it came at a terrible price, was nonetheless something precious and worthy of note. So much so that it will transform a day rife with sadness into one rampant with elation.
And if we could only now learn to embrace and cherish that sense of national harmony every day of our lives, we just might be able to make this coming Tisha Be’av the last sorrowful one of its kind.