Although the Civil War was the most traumatic event in U. S. history, Americans did not establish a special day to mourn for the more than 600,000 Americans (1/3 military and 2/3 civilian) who died in that war. Americans do not annually revisit that tragic event, or the failure of American democracy to end the crime of slavery without a civil war. Americans are a positive people and we do not like to dwell on past failures, even if doing so might help us avoid future failures. This is one of the reasons so many active and involved American Jews avoid observing Tisha b’Av.
Most people and governments like to speak about their victories and accomplishments. Few speak as frequently about their defeats and failures, as Jews do. Hanukkah celebrates a major victory over the Syrian Greek Empire. Tisha b’Av mourns over two major defeats; first by the Babylonian Empire in 587 BCE and then again by the Roman Empire in 70 CE. Why, year after year, do Jews remind themselves about military defeats?
For the same reasons Jews observe the annual Yartziet of a loved one’s death. We mourn not the fact of death, but the loss of a loved one’s life. Thus, on Tisha b’Av, Jews mourn the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and its Sanctuary. They once served as a major source of communal unity and spiritual holiness for Jews; as the annual Haj pilgrimage to Makka does for Muslims to this very day. Tens of thousands of Jews from throughout the land of Israel, and from all the surrounding lands of the Roman and Parthian Empires, came to Jerusalem and its Sanctuary, especially during the week long pilgrimage festivals of Haj Pesach and Haj Sukkot. That’s all gone now.
But that is only part of the equation. Other nations and religious groups have lost capital cities and holy sanctuaries. The sanctuaries and cities of Babylon, Nineveh, and Thebes are nothing but ruins. No one today still mourns their demise. Why do Jews, after 1946 years, still mourn the loss of our Sanctuary?
Because we are still here, and the ancient Babylonians, Assyrians and Egyptians are long gone. Even without our homeland and our Holy Temple, we have not only survived; we have thrived. Other nations and religions have achieved ascendancy over us time and again, yet we have never given up our beliefs or our loyalty to the covenant our ancestors made with the God of Israel.
As individuals, Jews know that death cannot destroy love; and as a historically aware community we know that defeat and oppression cannot destroy faith unless people just give up. Jews almost boast about how much they have suffered, in order to show how dedicated and devoted the Jewish people have been.
But Jews are not the only people to be persecuted and massacred. In the twentieth century Armenians, Cambodians, Gypsies and Tutsis have also been victims of genocidal attacks. Nor is Judaism the only religion that after many centuries still annually mourns a tragic loss.
Shi’a Muslims are still mourning the slaughter of Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, his supporters and members of his family, by a rival Arab faction more than thirteen centuries ago. This martyrdom took place near Karbalah in Iraq on October 10. 680.
Shi’a Muslims consider this a day of mourning and sorrow; observing it by refraining from music, listening to sorrowful poetic recitations, wearing mourning attire, and refraining from joyous events like weddings that would distract them from the sorrowful remembrance of that day.
These rituals that Shi’a Muslims observe on the tenth of Muharram are similar to the rituals Jews observe on the ninth of Av.
Each people, religious community, culture and nation is unique in its own way, yet each also has something in its own experience that is similar to something in another community’s experience. Remembering the varied aspects of our uniqueness should help us find something in common with the various uniquenesses of all others.
Our sages knew it is natural and easy to blame our suffering on those who have defeated us and hope someday in the future to get revenge. The sages wanted Jews to live in peace with the non-Jews around them, so in later generations they portrayed some of the enemy’s top generals in positive terms.
Pangar, an Arab general, is reported to have saved the western wall from destruction, and an anonymous Roman officer (Talmud Ta’anith 29a) is reported to have saved Rabbi Gamaliel’s life when Gamaliel had been condemned to death. Both of these righteous Gentiles lost their lives because of their actions.
The sages also taught that Sannacherib the Assyrian king who exiled the ten northern tribes and Nebusaraddan the Babylonian general who destroyed the First Temple, converted to Judaism in their later years.
In addition, seeking to avoid the vendetta mind set that keeps hostilities alive for centuries the sages even taught that some descendants of Haman converted to Judaism and their descendants ended up teaching Torah in the orthodox town of Bene Berak. And they were not the only ones.
According to the Talmud (Gittin 57b) “Descendants of Sisera (a Canaanite general) taught children in Jerusalem, and descendants of Sennacherib (an Assyrian general) gave public lectures on Torah. Who were they? Shemaya and Avtalyon.” These two sages were the predecessors of Hillel and Shammai.
Not only may descendants of present enemies provide converts who will be supporters of Torah in the future, but spurning any potential converts now may provide us with future anti-Semites.
A midrash in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) teaches that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob each in turn refused to accept Timna the sister of Lotan as a convert. Because the patriarchs pushed away a potential convert, their descendants suffered greatly at the hands of her descendants; the Amalekites.