All human beings die. Most of us will lose our health and vitality before we die. We will all lose other people that we love. Most of us will experience failure and disappointment, pain and misfortune personally, or indirectly through empathy with others who suffer pain and sorrow. Self conscious human beings, more than any other species on planet Earth, live with the knowledge of inevitable loss. Learning to deal with loss is one of the most important lessons of life.
Jews, like every other human culture and religious community, have funeral and mourning rituals to help us deal with the death of other individuals. We also have Yom Kippur to help us deal with our own individual failures in living and loving.
In addition, we have Tisha B’Av, to commiserate and commemorate major tragedies in the history of the Jewish community. It offers us an opportunity to feel and learn important lessons dealing with major loss suffered in living a communal life.
To a large extant. how we feel and react to the pains of major loss, depends on our learned attitudes and expectations. While nobody can prevent or avoid all the risks of living and loosing, we can soften the negative, cynical, embittering, or depressing effects of life’s blows by the way we handle them.
Experiencing Tisha B’Av emotionally, ritually and philosophically, helps us learn the varied ways the Jewish people survived both major religious loses in our relationship with the God of Israel, and an equally important political crises in our attitude toward the gentile nations that we live among.
For the men and women who were Divinely inspired to write the Hebrew Bible, their fundamental and central experience was their encounter with God. This encounter was not with an impersonal power, an ultimate inner reality or a ground of being. It was one prophet’s spiritual personality encountering another transcendent spiritual personality. An emotional relationship of loving commitment and care was established with this other One.
At Sinai, the covenant first established with an individual named Abraham, was extended to the whole Jewish people. The Jewish people chose to be chosen, and a holy relationship, akin to a marriage relationship, was entered into.
Each monotheistic religion relates to the One God in its own unique way. Our unique relationship to God is primarily communal, with an emphasis on a covenant of Divine-human partnership. When things go terribly wrong for the Jewish People, the ongoing commitment to the covenantal partnership is endangered. The partners seem estranged, distant, even disloyal. Then the continuity of covenantal love is questioned by many Jews and even abandoned by some.
Although relationships are always personal and mutual, people also can passionately believe in ideals and principles. When these seem to fail we also suffer loss. Most people who have been involved in several serious love relationships that ended in disappointment, do not give up on love; but some do.
Harsh reality intrudes, and can destroy ideals and beliefs in values we once held dear. Even if we do not abandon our hopes and ideals, we may hesitate to energetically pursue them. We feel disillusioned and defeated.
In a similar way, violent conflicts between nations, classes, races and religions challenge our ideal of what should be a peaceful human community. Future reconciliation and peace seem to be unattainable; despair and revenge seem inevitable. We can lose our faith and hope in Israel’s and humanity’s future.
For Jews who are committed to a covenantal relationship with our God, abandoning our partnership with the God of Israel, or surrendering faith in our ability to help bring about a Messianic Age of justice and world peace, are outcomes that are totally unacceptable.
Experiencing Tisha B’Av emotionally, ritually and philosophically, helps us learn the varied ways the Jewish people survived this major challenge to our relationship with both the God of Israel, and our belief in our ability to help bring about a Messianic Age here on earth.
Tisha B’Av can also teach us better ways of understanding major loses that we may personally face in our own life now and in the future. The ability to transform the pain of past loss into a promise of future action is more attainable when one can see how the process succeeded in previous times.
Some people care so much about present tragedies that they have no interest in remembering past tragedies. Others are so focused on their own tragic past that they are numbed to the tragedies of others in our generation.
Jews are commanded both to remember and to care. Commiserating on Tisha B’Av is the way we are challenged to do both.
A Midrash relates that the Messiah was/will be born on Av 9, Tisha B’Av, the very day that we remind ourselves that the first and second Temples were destroyed. Will our generation be able to generate a Messianic Age out of the ashes of Auschwitz and Hiroshima?
God help us if we don’t. Or perhaps God will damn us if we don’t, for this is one of the lessons of Tisha B’Av.