Tisha B’Av: From Bad Calendar Luck to Creative Jewish Renewal

A reflection from Avi West, Master Teacher of Federation’s Jewish Education Department

This year, Tisha B’Av, the Ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av which commemorates Jewish national tragedies, will begin on Saturday night August 10, and continue until Sunday night August 11. Jewish tradition has compressed history to compound our national loss, setting this day to remember both the Babylonian (586 BCE) and the Roman (70 CE) destruction of the ancient temples and Jerusalem. And since Jewish memory is more potent than history, we can mourn the lost opportunity when, on the 9th of Av, the Biblical Israelites were discouraged by ten of the spies who spoke disparagingly of the Land of Israel and fated the Israelites to wander for 40 years. The run of bad luck continued with the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290 CE, as well as the edict of expulsion in 1492 ending the “Golden Age” of Spanish Jewry. We also recall that World War I began on the ninth of Av, August 1, 1914, when Germany declared war on Russia, effectively starting the First World War and the cascade of tragedies culminating in the Holocaust.

But as dark and dense with tragedy as this day may be, it is not the Ninth of Av that defines who we are. Jewish memory will preserve these events, but the Jewish future will be built through the resulting resilience, creativity, hope, and wisdom accumulated over time and in response to these challenges.

We can turn the many reasons for mourning on Tisha B’Av into positive platforms for action. If our collective memory attributes the destruction of the second temple to “baseless hatred,” then we can pledge to counter with “boundless love.” That would include finding reason to embrace those who have differences of opinion, and at the least abstain from lashon hara, the evil speech patterns that spark enmity.

Israel’s national anthem Hatikvah (the hope), makes the profound statement that, “As long as the Jewish spirit is longing deep in the heart, With eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion, Then our hope —the two-thousand-year-old hope—will not be lost…”  It is the human ability to long for something that bridges loss and leads to resilience. Of course, a prerequisite for having feelings of longing and loss is the recognition of what is missing and what role it played in our personal or national lives.

In Eternal Echoes: Reflections on our Yearning to Belong, Celtic spiritual philosopher John O’Donohue notes that the word “belonging” is comprised of the two fundamental aspects of life: being and longing.  He writes, “Belonging is the heart and warmth of intimacy. When we deny it, we grow cold and empty. Our life’s journey is the task of refining our belonging so that it may become more true, loving, good and free.” This idea may be the secret to Jewish resilience, and the source of hope for Jewish communities. As we remember the loss of communities past, we can find comfort and creative renewal in belonging to a vibrant community now.

When we say, “it takes a village,” we mean that a community that shares the responsibility to nurture, educate, mourn, and celebrate its individuals and its shared values becomes a key factor in its success. When the ancient sages claim that, “all those who mourn over Jerusalem will merit seeing its joy,” they were recognizing the “oys” and joys of longing and belonging. They saw eventual redemption within the ruins of destruction.

Lord Jonathan Sacks preached, “Do remember the past- but do not be held captive by it.” Tisha B’Av is not a static photograph. It must be viewed within the ongoing lens of Jewish life and development. Episodes of destruction are also opportunities for repair (tikkun). Today’s community is not an endpoint. It can be a platform for creating the society of our dreams.