From sadness to festivity

‘The fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months will become joyful and glad occasions and happy festivals for Judah. (Zechariah 8: 19)

Tisha B'Av  (photo credit: Reuters)
Tisha B'Av
(photo credit: Reuters)
This Sabbath falls out on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, the mournful anniversary of the destruction of both of our Holy Temples. Since the Sabbath is a day of oneg (joyousness) in the Kingship of the Divine, it cannot host a day of despair and fasting; Hence, we postpone and relegate our Tisha Be’av mourning to the following day, Sunday, which is actually the 10th day of Av. Nevertheless, I would like to explore a number of difficult issues concerning Tisha Be’av.
Firstly, the prophet Zechariah optimistically declares: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: the fast of the fourth month (17 Tamuz) and the fast of the fifth month (9 Av)… will become joyful and glad occasions and moadim (happy festivals). Therefore, love truth and peace” (Zechariah 8:19).
We give credence and added strength to this prophecy by changing and lightening the foreboding character of Tisha Be’av by rising from our shiva stools (we must sit low to the ground on Tisha Be’av) at midday.
Likewise, adult males put on their tefillin for the afternoon prayer – despite the fact that tefillin are called “pe’er” (an adornment) by the prophet Ezekiel.
How can we change the character of a day and date of historical destruction, doom and gloom? In every other instance of a festival, the manner in which we celebrate the sanctity of the day is determined by the miracles God performed on that day. What miracle occurred on Tisha Be’av that will enable it to become a festival in the future? Even more paradoxically, it was specifically in the late afternoon of Tisha Be’av that the actual burning of the Holy Temple commenced, continuing into the next day, 10 Av. How can we alleviate the heavy atmosphere of our observance of the day precisely at the time when the destructive flames were beginning to envelop the Temple? Finally, the biblical reading for Tisha Be’av is taken from the portion of Va’et’hanan, which will be read next week on what is known as the “Sabbath of Comfort” (Shabbat Nahamu). Indeed, although the passage opens with a brief description of the corruption of the Israelites and the eventual destruction that will occur after they enter the Promised Land (Deut. 4:25- 28), it then speaks of the miracle of Jewish survival and the ultimate beginning of Israel as God’s elected nation. Would not a reading from either of the two biblical portions of tochahot (chastisements – Leviticus 26 or Deuteronomy 28) have been more fitting for Tisha Be’av, the day of utter calamity and loss of national sovereignty? My revered teacher, Rav Joseph B.
Soloveitchik, answers these questions – as well as offering an edifying insight into the significance of Tisha Be’av – in a commentary on one of the fast-day kinot (dirges) – “How the Rose of Sharon sat alone,” written by Rabbi Elazar Hakalir. On the words, “The enemy stretched out his hand against the Temple, for we deserved extinction no less than the generation of the Flood,” the Rav explained that while the suffering on Tisha Be’av was grievous and horrific, the day also contained an important element of God’s hessed (loving kindness): The Almighty chose to express His wrath against the corruption and insensitivity of the nation of Israel by destroying the inanimate stones of the Holy Temple; God razed the Temple to the ground, but He allowed His nation Israel to live.
Israel “deserved the punishment of extinction no less than the generation of the Flood;” but God chose to destroy His earthly throne, the Holy Temple, as a substitute or collateral for Israel. In this manner, God demonstrates the eternality of His covenant with Israel; Israel may be punished but we will never be destroyed. Israel remains God’s covenantal nation; Israel will ultimately repent and Israel will ultimately be redeemed and will redeem the world. (Kinot in the Tradition of the Rav, Lookstein Edition, OU – Koren Press pp.
282-3) This is the force of the biblical reading from Va’et’hanan on Tisha Be’av. After the text states that because of Israel’s perverseness and idolatry, she “will be destroyed, yes destroyed” (Deut. 4:25), the very next verse lightens the punishment to exile and dispersion, promises that Israel will seek out God and repentance and declares that our God of compassion will never forsake or destroy us, He will never forget the covenant He swore to our fathers.
It is this Divine guarantee, which emerges from Tisha Be’av, that will enable the day to ultimately become a festival once Israel learns to appreciate the lesson of the day and becomes worthy of the fulfillment of the Covenant. And this is why it is precisely when the flames were devouring and destroying the physical stones of the Temple, but not wiping out the Jewish people, that Jewish law alleviates the somber and burdensome atmosphere of the day by allowing us to rise from sitting on the ground and to adorn ourselves with the tefillin.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.