The Ninth of Av was a national calamity. After 480 years of complete moral breakdown, the inconceivable occurred – Jerusalem was ransacked and the Temple was leveled.
Imagine waking up to a bizarre world, in which everything was unfamiliar: no sovereignty, no prophecy, no army, no Temple and, of course, no homeland. These maddening Kafkaesque scenes must have been agonizing.
Five centuries later the unimaginable happened... again. On the exact same day that Jerusalem was first demolished, disaster struck a second time, as the Romans razed the Second Temple.
Sadly, this catastrophe carried little drama, as Jerusalem had already been fractured by decades of civil war and social strife. Jerusalem wasn’t captured by the Romans; it collapsed under the weight of seething contempt and social division.
The overlap of these two catastrophes wasn’t coincidental. Watching the Romans set the Second Temple ablaze on the very same day that the Babylonians had scorched the First Temple made it clear that these tragedies were divine retribution. Through our moral debauchery and social disharmony, we forfeited our national treasure, our homeland and our peoplehood.
Aside from the destruction of two Temples, Tisha Be’av also launched a 2,000-year era of hatred and persecution. In our first exile, we were banished to Babylonia for 70 years, during which we were treated reasonably well, and afterward we enjoyed a quick historical turnaround. Many who left Jerusalem in chains 70 years earlier witnessed our triumphant return to Jerusalem.
Sadly, the past 2,000 years of the “Roman” exile have been a torturous odyssey through the wildernesses of history, a voyage plagued by violence and discrimination. Tisha Be’av is a day to mourn our loss of homeland and of Temple, but also to grieve over the horrors of the past two millennia and the treacherous journey back to Israel.
The world went dark
Beyond national mourning, Tisha Be’av is also a day of universal tragedy.
Sighing over the destruction of his city, Jeremiah the Prophet compares the wreckage of Jerusalem to a stripped-down garden. It is odd to portray a charred Temple, which is crafted from wood, stone and metal, as a stripped-down garden. Evidently, there are more ominous connotations to a wrecked garden.
Which garden was “ruined” as we left Jerusalem?
The first garden
Thousands of years earlier, at the dawn of creation, we were all expelled from the original Garden of Eden. Original sin corrupted our divine purity, as all humanity fell into a degraded moral and religious state. For 2,000 years, God patiently waited for humanity to recover, to rediscover His presence, improve its moral behavior and trace its way back to the garden. Sadly, humanity was utterly lost in a dark world of black magic, savagery and moral mayhem. It could not trace its way back to the garden. It was lost.
Acknowledging this condition, God selected one people to receive His word and to model a life of morality and monotheism for the entire human race. At Sinai we were given a “road map” back to Eden and a clear assignment to inspire the world and bring it back to the garden.
Initially, the plan seemed to be working. We settled our national garden of Israel, constructed a Temple, and were on track to restore human nobility and reclaim the garden. There was great optimism that we would eventually lead humanity back to the garden – until human nature took over and we failed history.
After hundreds of years of moral free fall, we were ejected from Israel and effectively evicted from our garden. Being cast out of our garden of Jerusalem, we squandered humanity’s opportunity to return to its garden. Walking away from Jerusalem spoiled any hopes for humanity’s quick return to the garden.
On the day we left Jerusalem, the lights went out. Without the Jews residing in Jerusalem and drawing God into this world, human progress, not to mention perfection, became evermore elusive. The world would suffer the consequences of Tisha Be’av for centuries to come.
The fall of Rome and the Dark Ages
Three hundred and fifty years after the final defeat of Israel, the Roman era would meet its inglorious end. Amid a carnival of hedonistic self-indulgence and reckless leadership, Rome would crumble. The capital city of Rome itself would be looted six times throughout history! Rome would pay for its assault upon the Jews and the dark curse it leveled upon humanity.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, humanity plunged into a 1,000-year period of darkness. Human progress was thwarted by political instability, relentless barbarian invasion, and infertile agricultural conditions. The great civilization of Rome, with all its potential, spiraled into a world of hunger, war and repressiveness. Without the Jews in Jerusalem, the world became dark for centuries.
Around the year 1100, having finally reached a degree of centralized political stability, humanity faced a new misfortune, as vicious religious wars devoured civilization. With so many resources dedicated to killing each other, humanity wasn’t able to advance or improve itself. For close to 13 centuries after we left Jerusalem, the world remained dark.
Back to Eden
Sometime during the late 14th or early 15th century, the tides of history began to shift. The human spirit experienced a renaissance and rediscovered art, culture, philosophy and literature. Human progress wasn’t far behind. In the 17th and 18th centuries, humanity liberated itself from the tyranny of repressive government by introducing modern democracy. In the 19th century, rapid industrialization and urbanization dramatically improved the quality of life and aimed to eliminate poverty and starvation as fatal threats to human life. Finally, in the 20th century, the free world twice defended itself against evil regimes threatening to crush human liberty.
The stage was set. Humanity was veering closer to returning to the garden. The world was becoming more radiant, but one aspect was still missing. The Jews were still scattered across history, in no position to return humanity to its garden. The great shift of history, with all its progress, would be futile unless the Jews could reclaim their garden.
In 1948 that all changed. We returned to our garden and repositioned ourselves to lead humanity back to its garden. Large historical patterns unfold over centuries, and it takes a wide lens to appreciate their panoramic trajectory.
On Tisha Be’av, mourn our lost Temple, homeland and lost national pride. Mourn the thousands of years of persecution which ensued in the wake of our repeated national breakdowns. But don’t forget to mourn for all of humanity as well. How much hardship did it endure! How much darkness, hatred, ugliness and bloodshed afflicted humanity throughout history, and continues to afflict humanity. It could have been different – life wasn’t intended to be this strenuous. Had we never abandoned our garden, we may have returned humanity to its garden much sooner.
Better late than never. We are footsteps away.
The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University, as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.
Days of mourning, days of study
With our return to Israel we have also returned to the book of history and of land. In the modern state, Tanach study, which had been neglected for centuries, has experienced a spectacular renaissance.
The Herzog College Yemei Iyun B’Tanach at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Gush Etzion is one of the largest annual Torah gatherings in the world. A weeklong conference offering 120 lectures is attended by over 3,000 people, many of whom fly in from overseas specifically to attend the conference. Watching teenagers and retirees, local Israelis and international visitors all gather in the Gush is a thrilling reminder of how Torah study draws our people back to our homeland – literally and figuratively.
The study week attracts a broad range of ages and offers a special menu of lectures in English. Over 60% of the attendees are women, and several lectures are delivered by women, highlighting the impressive development and expansion of Torah study for women.
Over the years, the conference has expanded well beyond a Torah study event. Currently, private sellers offer a broad range of merchandise, from Hebrew books and religious items to general books, shmita produce and even clothing for the religious community. The event has morphed from a study week into a cultural festival for the religious public.
The event is held during the week immediately prior to Tisha Be’av, and it is powerfully symbolic that as we mourn over Jewish exile and dream of redemption, thousands of people immerse themselves in the Book of Prophecy and Jewish history.