As you read this, the fast of the ninth of Av has either concluded or is approaching its end. In most years, there is always an abundance of critics questioning why, in this age of the modern State of Israel, do we need a somber occasion to mourn the loss of Jerusalem and the two great Temples.
After all, have we not rebuilt our capital in magnificent style? Has its population not expanded exponentially in every direction, offering an impressive abundance of beautiful homes and hotels, yeshivot and synagogues? Is not the sight of enthusiastic, overflowing crowds at the Kotel wondrous in the extreme?
Indeed, historically speaking, during the period following the rebuilding of the Second Temple, Tisha Be’av was converted into a joyous day, one of feasting rather than fasting. Should that not be our mindset today as well?
Yes, in some years this question might be legitimately entertained, but this year, sad to say, is unlike any other year. The worldwide corona crisis – some have called it the most pervasive calamity since Noah’s great flood! – has cast a pall over even the most glorious of surroundings. We feel a sense of isolation, concern over the future, disunity in our streets and doubts about our ability to weather the storm. The lack of faith in our leaders at home and the growing antisemitism abroad – particularly in the United States – have left us with a pervasive feeling of abandonment, if not hopelessness.
The haunting words of the Prophet Jeremiah in the opening chapter of Lamentations “Eicha yashva badad – how she [Jerusalem] sits in isolation” strike a deep chord within us, as tens of thousands of people have truly sat in bidud, quarantine, over the last several months. The world, once at our fingertips, has shrunk dramatically – confining, even trapping us inside small quarters – as international travel has essentially come to a halt and we are warned to stay closer and closer to home. On a personal level, as a longtime staff member of a kosher cruise program, the deep blue seas are now located somewhere between a lovely memory and a hopeful dream.
Circumstances have dictated that the important life-cycle events in our lives must be severely diminished. I have officiated at a number of weddings with 20 or fewer participants – scaled down from several hundred – and even the recent brit milah of our new grandson was limited to just eight family members.
On a particularly sad note, funerals are radically restricted, preventing grieving relatives from giving their loved ones a fitting send-off to the world beyond. Just last week, dear friend Eallan Hirshfeld, about whom I recently wrote (“The power of one,” The Jerusalem Post, December 4, 2019), died. Considering that he led 299 monthly trips to Hebron – and eagerly awaited the 300th – his funeral undoubtedly would have been attended by thousands, instead of the two dozen allowed in the cemetery. My only consolation for him is that, by Jewish tradition, all Jewish souls are transported to Heaven via Hebron, and so he made that final journey after all.
This condition of bidud is also famously mentioned by the seer Balaam, who declares, “hen am l’vadad yishkon,” Israel is a nation that dwells alone.
Over the past years there has been an alarming rise in global antisemitism, which seeks to isolate the Jew and brand him as the eternal enemy of humanity. In a world desperately in need of a united, universal front against corona, verbal and physical assaults on Jews and Israel have proliferated, even casting Jews as the source of the pandemic.
Racism may have become the “devil of the day” in progressive society and sparked massive protests, but Jews somehow remain fair game while antisemitism is conspicuously excluded from condemnation. The courageous statements of celebrated athletes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Charles Barkley deploring hatred of Jews stand in glaring opposition to nasty, bigoted remarks that go largely unpunished.
IT IS against this background that we must view Tisha Be’av. The loss of the Temples and the exile and dispersion of our people left us, to a great degree, defenseless as well as homeless. We lost our spiritual center as well as our own country, and though we valiantly tried to establish ourselves in the Diaspora and create “miniature Temples” that mimicked the real thing, catastrophe always lurked around the next corner, biding its time until the right conditions invariably presented themselves.
Now, thank God, we have returned to our land en masse. We are already, in my opinion, more than 50% of the world Jewish population and we are growing (estimates of 6.5 million American Jews are absurdly optimistic and mathematically challenged; could US Jewry really have expanded from 5.5 million in the last generation, with an intermarriage and assimilation rate of 70%?!). Our pride has returned, our rightful place on the world stage is assured, and our accomplishments are nothing short of miraculous.
But sadly, the flames that vanquished the Temples still burn. The intra-Jewish strife, the lack of respect for other opinions, the sin’at hinam that stifles debate and silences dissent has not melted away; it may be even more severe than ever before. As I have written many times, it is only our own rise to greatness that will produce great leaders in its wake.
Yet, as Tisha Be’av comes to a close, the light of optimism comes back into our lives and we are consoled. By tradition, the Messiah will be born on 9 Av; perhaps it is the very outgrowth of our deficiencies that will produce a hero who sees our struggles and yet senses our greatness. And fittingly, Tisha Be’av will be closely followed next week by Tu Be’av, the “holiday of love” that seeks to conquer hate.
My friend Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg, who founded Kids Kicking Cancer to teach young patients how to overcome pain through the use of martial arts, wrote, “A perfect God created an imperfect world – perfectly.” We are far from perfect, to be sure, yet God instilled in us, individually and collectively, the ability to achieve perfection; that remains our greatest challenge.
The tool to accomplish this elusive goal – and to rebuild that third and final Temple – is tikva, hope. Fittingly, it is the national anthem of the Jewish nation and the key to our survival.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.