In Plain Language: Illuminating the black fast

DO we live in a society where excessive emphasis is placed on the superficial trappings of religion, and so little on core values of kindness, courtesy and love?

Jewish Temple (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Jewish Temple
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
How do we know that the Torah is authentic? For that matter, how can we be sure that all of Jewish tradition – as well as Jewish history, particularly the pre-Exile chapters, extending back through the glory days of kings David and Solomon and even further back to Moses and the heroes of the Bible – is the real thing? After all, our Palestinian “partners” mock our connection to ancient Israel, denying that we ever had a Temple while at the same time meticulously destroying the hard evidence of its existence.
You might cite archeological finds to back up our narrative, or widespread, communal transmission of the seminal events of our national experience. And of course, if you are an observant Jew, you might simply profess a complete and unshakeable faith in the veracity of our holy literature, adhering to the Maimonidean maxim, “I believe that the Torah today is the same Torah that has existed throughout the generations, dating back to Moses, and that every word of it is true.”
But I suggest there is yet another proof that dispels any doubt regarding who we are and who we were. The fact that our literature portrays us as real people, with faults and foibles, speaks volumes about the authenticity of the text. For what other religion’s source book is just as quick to point out the failings of its protagonists as it is to sing their praises and accomplishments? What other tradition lambastes its star personalities as often as it glorifies them? God, as recorded in the Torah, harshly criticizes Sarah for doubting the Almighty’s ability to grant her a child; calls out the Tribes for selling Joseph; and punishes Moses for striking the rock (resulting in his nonentrance to the Land of Israel). And the books of the prophets, on practically every page, castigate the nation for its infidelity and moral failings.
Can you imagine the Koran highlighting the flaws and faults of Muhammad? Just the suggestion that he is human, let alone imperfect, is enough to generate a global Islamic eruption, and even lead to war.
And so, precisely because we are told that our actions and behavior caused the Temple to be destroyed, we know that it certainly existed.
We are entering today the period known as the Nine Days, culminating in 9 Av, when both Temples were destroyed, by the Babylonians and Romans, respectively.
These are dark days, when festivities are curtailed even as beards grow longer. Like the stages of mourning in reverse, we become increasingly somber and reflective for several weeks, until, on Tisha Be’av, we engage in a 25-hour fast, sitting on the ground and lamenting the loss of the Temple and all that this implied. This is the Black Fast, a day that lives on in infamy, with none of the spiritual exuberance and liberation from sin that characterizes Yom Kippur, the White Fast.
If we are to one day right the wrongs of Tisha Be’av, it is instructive and essential to examine the root causes of the Destruction.
I suggest that there are three primary elements, reflected in Rabbinic sources, that tell the tragic tale.
The first goes back to the initial tragic event of 9 Av. It was on this date when the scouts sent out by Moses to reconnoiter the Land, in preparation for its invasion and conquest, came back with a negative report.
They concluded that we could not subdue the seven nations residing in Canaan, nor could we survive for very long in the land even if we did succeed in crossing the Jordan.
Whether because the scouts doubted God or themselves, they caused a schism in the Jewish nation that reverberates until this very day.
“You cried for no reason on the night the scouts gave their report,” said an angry and disappointed God to the people, “but in the future, you shall indeed have ample reason to wail.” The cry of Tisha Be’av is made ever more bitter by the knowledge that so many of our co-religionists still subscribe to the scouts’ stance on Israel, stubbornly preferring to remain in the countries of our dispersion even when God has reopened the door to the Holy Land.
The second, and arguably the most famous comment on the Destruction comes from the Talmud’s tractate Yoma, which not by chance deals with the essence of repentance and return. There we are told that the First Temple was destroyed due to the prevalence of the three cardinal sins: idolatry, immorality and bloodshed. “And what about the Second Temple,” asks the Talmud, “when Jews were immersed in the study of Torah, the fulfillment of mitzvot and the performance of acts of kindness?” The sages answer: “It was destroyed because of the sinat hinam – baseless hatred – that was in it.”
Now, on first glance this statement seems quite odd. If the people performed kind and charitable acts, if they supported the poor and loved the proselyte, where was the “baseless hatred”? But this is precisely the point; they went through the motions of the mitzvot, they conducted the rituals by the numbers, but their hearts were not in it.
Acts of kindness are meant to be the means to an end, designed to engender love between the different segments of society.
But for this community they only masked an attitude of arrogance, elitism and disdain.
Baseless hatred “was in it”; it amounted to empty, meaningless acts of rote behavior, more befitting robots than rabbis.
Has all that much changed? Do we not still live in a society where excessive emphasis is placed on the exterior, superficial trappings of religion, and so little on the core values of kindness, courtesy, compassion and love? What is this fixation we have with being “clothes-minded”? Should we not give God a little more credit for his ability to see through the costumes and into the core? Do we not understand that it is the attitude, rather than the act, which impresses the Almighty? Finally, after the Talmud offers a whole litany of reasons why Temple society crumbled – ranging from a neglect of proper education for the children to a lack of appreciation for the Shabbat to a failure to speak out against sinful behavior – along comes Rabbi Yohanan in tractate Bava Metzia, making the perplexing statement: “Jerusalem was destroyed because we upheld the letter of the Law.” The sages rightfully ask, “What is wrong with the letter of the law? Should we rather live in a lawless society?” And they are answered, “They should have gone beyond the letter of the law!” A reasonable sentiment, but confusing. What about all the other reasons given for the destruction? Were they not legitimate? What does going “beyond the letter of the law” add? The answer, it seems to me, is that, yes, the other reasons are all valid; we did commit serious sins, both individual and societal.
But had we been the kind of people who “went beyond” the strict measure of the law and what was “coming to us”; had we given others the benefit of the doubt, cut them some slack, forgiven their errors and offered them another chance, then God would have done the same for us. He would have excused our errant behavior and let it slide. But since we were determined to exact the full measure of justice and retribution from our fellow man, God, in like measure, treated us the same way.
The rabbis make a dramatic statement: “He who does not rebuild the Temple in his generation is considered as if he has destroyed it.” The clear implication is that history – in particular its most tragic elements – continues to repeat itself until and unless we step in and do something to change it. The road back to a kinder, holier, more pristine Jewish world begins with the knowledge that, as we judge others, so shall we be judged. Internalizing just that one crucial message can mean the difference between Black and White.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana and a Ra’anana city councilman;;