Tisha Be’av: The bittersweet, most tragic day - opinion

However, on that Tisha Be’av night at the Western Wall which my family experienced on our visit from the Diaspora, both themes resonated: the Holocaust, but also the destruction of the Temples.

Ultra-Orthodox worshippers pray on Tisha Be’Av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, at the Western Wall on July 18, 2021. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Ultra-Orthodox worshippers pray on Tisha Be’Av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, at the Western Wall on July 18, 2021.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

That I recite the Hallel prayer on Israel’s Independence Day does not mean that the redemption has come. That I see a light at the end of a tunnel on Tisha Be’av does not mean that I believe that the redemption has come.

We are far from that point, but we are much further than we were just decades ago.

Several decades ago, as a child, I experienced Tisha Be’av at the Western Wall for the first time. It was during a visit with my family to Israel, when we still lived in New York. At night, at the onset of what is often referred to as the most tragic date on the Jewish calendar, the promenade was packed.

We referred to it sardonically as the social event of the year. It seemed terribly inappropriate. Indeed, the socializing that was going on that night would have seemed totally out of place in my synagogue back in Brooklyn on that same night.

Our reaction was to declare that although it was something we had to do – to see for ourselves – to mark the occasion, it would be the only time we would visit the Western Wall on Tisha Be’av. True, this is the place where the two Temples stood and were destroyed, but better to mourn the occasion in a quieter, more subdued setting, in order to give proper expression to the meaning of the day. That was our thinking back then.

TISHA BE’AV at the Kotel. (credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON / FLASH 90)TISHA BE’AV at the Kotel. (credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON / FLASH 90)

What this day commemorates is the destruction of the Temples. But before that, it marked the biblical story of the spies, who tried to dissuade the Children of Israel from entering the land. We also remember the persecution of the Jewish people throughout the ages, including in modern times, and the Holocaust in particular.

At a US summer camp that I attended as a teen, there was a feeling that the exile from Jerusalem was something with which the campers would have a more difficult time associating. It wouldn’t speak to them. The focus at the camp ceremony for Tisha Be’av was on the Holocaust.

The decision made sense, especially a number of decades ago, when parents of the campers, and certainly the staff, included Holocaust survivors.

However, on that Tisha Be’av night at the Western Wall which my family experienced on our visit from the Diaspora, both themes resonated: the Holocaust, but also the destruction of the Temples. While in those summer camps, the centrality of Jerusalem seemed so far away and intangible, on that night at the Western Wall, we were in Jerusalem. We peered over, and there it was – the site of the Temple.

YET, THE persecution through the millennia was also a theme. Jews have prayed toward this holiest of places no matter where they have been, no matter what the circumstances. They have prayed toward Jerusalem and yearned for Jerusalem. On this night, we were in Jerusalem, not with a rebuilt Temple, but right next to it.

And though at first it seemed perverse that Jews should be so cheerful on Tisha Be’av night, and in the Temple backyard no less, where the flames had engulfed Judaism’s holiest shrine, it hit me that this was, perhaps in some backhanded way, a tikkun which was dramatically appropriate for this occasion.

We are taught that after hearing the spies’ negative report, the Jews cried. God’s response was to make that night, which should have been a festive occasion on the threshold of entering the Promised Land, instead a tragic night – when there really would be a reason to cry through the ages.

Yet, on this night, in the latter part of the 20th century, when my family paid that Kotel visit, the people in the promenade were happy to be home. They were happy to be in the Promised Land on the night of the ninth day of the month of Av. This should have been the atmosphere among the people on that same night back when they had that initial chance to enter the land as a people.

Except for one thing: Was it the cheer of a social event of any summer vacation, or was it a high to be in this holy location?

TO BETTER understand how truly historic it is to be at the Western Wall, if not perhaps even the Temple Mount, just think of the trip that many Israeli high schoolers and IDF soldiers take to Poland.

I had the honor to be asked to moderate sessions at a conference in Warsaw several years ago. The trip also included a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. At the conclusion of the conference, we hopped on a plane – of an Israeli airline – to fly from Warsaw back to Ben-Gurion Airport. 

After just a short trip where we visited the scene of such horror against the Jewish people, I then found myself chatting with an Israeli flight attendant. It was Rosh Hodesh Sivan. I noticed on her name tag that her name was Sivan.

I said to her: “Nice. Your name is Sivan and today is Rosh Hodesh Sivan.”

She replied: “I know, and that’s why my parents gave me this name. Because I was born during Sivan.”

After having just stepped foot on soil where Jews were spewed forth and spit out, after a Holocaust where they were massively murdered in the millions, I was now back in the Israeli experience, where of course we know that it’s Sivan. We know who we are and we are back home celebrating it.

And that’s the point: we are home. We are not just back at some amazing tourist attraction.

When God wanted us to enter the land, it wasn’t for a summer vacation. It was to come home. 

Who are we to complain about the spies or the people back then? I do state with a certain level of confidence that it’s probably much easier to live here now than it was then, even if the “giants” of whom the spies spoke could perhaps be compared to those who want us out of here in the 21st century as well.

And as I’ve written, it can be challenging, it is challenging, but it’s a thrill that should never be taken for granted to live now in the Promised Land.

Not the redemption

So Tisha Be’av is still a most tragic date on the calendar marking the most tragic of times. We will be fasting. Lamentations and dirges will be recited. This is not the redemption. But we have come such a long way. 

Jerusalem is so full of construction right now, it can be annoying.

We are working on the future, both through physical construction and – let’s hope – through interpersonal building. How our politicians behave is not indicative of how we average people conduct our lives.

May we be worthy to see more and more of our people coming to live here, and living in peace and tranquility sometime very soon. 

The writer is op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post.