On Wednesday night, beginning at sundown, we mark the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. The 9th day of the 9th month is the Fast of Tisha b’Av – a day of communal mourning. The major commemoration that inspired Tisha b’Av was the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. and 70 C.E., respectively. On this day we also mourn for the defeat of the Bar Kochba rebellion. For the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290 and Spain in 1492. For the day on which Himmler was given the go- ahead for “The Final Solution,” that is, the extermination of the Jews of Europe.
In an article he wrote in 2014, Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sachs questions the continued suffering of the Jewish people. He writes, “Why so much suffering for so long? Have we not lived long enough in the valley of tears? “Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?”
Remembering sadness, re-living it, is something hard wired into our Jewish DNA. Four times a year we have Yizkor services to remember our departed. On the anniversary of the death of our departed, we light a candle and say Kaddish for them. We are never very far from the next Yizkor or the next Yahrzheit. We do everything we can to keep memory alive and to give honour to our departed. Why is this so important to us?
The tradition is based on our core belief in the eternity of the soul and that although a soul can no longer do good deeds after death, it can gain merit through the charity and good deeds of the living.
This makes lovely sense to me – we give charity in honour of our departed to bring merit to the memory of those we have personally lost.
But how does this apply to a day of mourning for catastrophic historical events?
Most Conservative and Reform Jews do not yearn for the Temple to be rebuilt or for the priesthood to be restored. We are followers of Rabbinic Judaism, not the Israelite sacrificial cult. So, the question naturally arises: Why do we continue to honour Tisha B’Av as a national day of mourning – long past its expiry date?
Maybe it’s time to re-write the practices of Tisha b’Av. A fitting Tisha B’Av rite for the modern Jew should embrace the themes of loss, destruction, and weakness while also acknowledging the unprecedented prosperity and security of most Jews today. There is haunting beauty and spiritual richness in sitting on the floor in a dimly lit sanctuary, hearing the cantor chant Eichah. Not to mention that the themes of destruction and exile resonate today in so many places around the world. Tisha B’Av can be an opportunity to cultivate our capacity to care.
A balanced Tisha B’Av would include mention of our people’s triumphs as well. We should emphasize what makes the Jewish reality today so different than in 586 BCE (the Babylonian exile) and 70 CE (the Roman destruction). The state of Israel exists as an economic and military powerhouse, and the North American Jewish community is more prosperous than ever. Neither is without its challenges, but our crises pale in comparison to our ancient forebears’. Let us feel gratitude for our blessings even as we pledge vigilance in the face of our challenges.
If nothing else, Tisha B’Av is a chance to retell part of our people’s story. The power of storytelling creates a sense of belonging and shared purpose, and even a sense of responsibility to carry on the story. Psychologists who study family storytelling have determined that the most powerful family narrative type is the “oscillating” narrative: We had struggles but we overcame them together. So many of our historical holidays touch that theme. Tisha B’Av is often a missed opportunity to retell part of that story – the ups and downs and everything in between. With some intentional planning and thoughtful implementation, we can honour Tisha B’Av’s origin and make it matter again to the Jews of today.