As the days move forward, the most solemn day of the year in the Jewish calendar – the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av – comes closer. The three-week period of mourning that began with the Fast of the Seventeeth of Tamuz silently builds toward a crescendo. From the setting of the sun this Monday night until the stars appear on Tuesday night, Jews the world-over will fast and mourn, commemorating and reliving the destruction of the both the First and the Second Commonwealths and the Temples that stood at their epi-center.
But notwithstanding the centrality of these two calamities in Jewish history, it is not only for them that we grieve on the Fast of the Ninth of Av. We remember as well many other tragedies that befell our people on this day: After the exodus from Egypt, it was on the ninth of Av that the Israelites rebelled against God’s plan to bring them into the Land of Israel, as a result of which was decreed that they wander forty years in the desert before entering the Land. And sixty five years after the destruction of the Second Temple, the Bar Kochba rebellion was squelched on this day, setting in motion the processes that brought about our almost two thousand year exile from our homeland. And it was on the ninth of Av that in the year 1492 Ferdinand and Isabelle expelled the Jews from Spain, thereby putting an end to the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry.
The day is so packed with pain and charged with suffering that even calamities that did not occur on this day are resurrected in our consciousness and are lamented in the dirges that echo in our synagogues during the fast: The carnage of the Crusades, the Khmelnitsky massacres, the pogroms in the Russian Pale of Settlement. Although most Jewish communities have set aside a separate day to grieve over the Holocaust, in some synagogues the memory of the Six Million melds into the pain of all these other catastrophes.
So much anguish, so much suffering. Where else is there a people on the face of the earth that has suffered so much? It is beyond belief that such a small nation as ours has been as persecuted and as hounded as we have been. It is incomprehensible that we have gone through what we have, and is doubly incomprehensible that we have survived it all and have risen again and again like a sphinx from the ashes.
In the Passover Hagada we recall that Egyptian slavery and the Exodus from Egypt are not to be seen only as isolated events, “for not just one enemy has stood against us to wipe us out, but rather in every generation there have been those who have stood against us to wipe us out, and the Holy One blessed be He, continually saves us from their hands”. This statement is preceded by the declaration that “this promise has stood for our ancestors and for ourselves”, referring to the promise pronounced in the Book of Genesis in which God tells our forefather Abraham that his seed shall be slaves in Egypt and then afterward shall be brought out to freedom. Clearly this prophecy to Abraham is understood as presenting a paradigm for all generations. But I have always wondered: What is the promise that has been fulfilled again and again in Jewish history? Is it simply the salvation that we have repeatedly experienced, or is the suffering itself also part of the promise?
Yes thank God the Jewish People is still alive and well. We have experienced repeated salvation, we have managed to survive, but survival implies the threat of destruction. And it appears as if those threats to our survival are as much a part of our collective Jewish DNA – perhaps we should say the DNA of the entire world – as is our ability to withstand them.
Our fate has never been that of the other nations. Jewish existence has always been a precarious one, stability is never guaranteed, life-threatening challenges are always on the horizon.
The present is no different from the past. World anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism, Iran’s nuclear threat to annihilate the State of Israel – it’s all nothing new. And now the missiles raining down upon us from Gaza, the terror tunnels under our southern border and the terrorists swarming through them to attack innocent men, women and children. And the world’s reaction that condemns us for our efforts to defend ourselves against bloodthirsty terror aimed at our destruction. Might it not all be part of an inexplicable pattern that goes back to the dawn of our history? I cannot explain it, but as terrible as it is, it only adds to my conviction that there is something ineffable about the Jewish destiny, something that defies the odds and the normal patterns of history.
Who can avoid the conclusion that we have been singled out by a Force greater than it all?
The ninth of Av is a gut-wrenchingly difficult day. But it has its rewards; paradoxically it is a day that paints a broad tapestry of Jewish history reminding us of how utterly unique our fate upon this planet has been, thereby strengthening our conviction that there is something special about us. The Jewish People are a ‘people that dwells alone’ and there is surely something divine, something chosen about us. May it only be that this Fast of the Ninth of Av – and the trials and tribulations that we are presently suffering – bring each of us face to face with the riddle of Jewish destiny. May we all be inspired to embrace that destiny and to delve deeper into its meaning for our lives.
And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks: Nation shall not take up Sword against nation. They shall never again know war. (Isaiah 2:4b)