After giving much thought to both halachic considerations and the realities of the day, with a heavy heart I have decided not to fast on Tisha B’Av this year. Of course having the fast be delayed a day because of Shabbat makes my decision much easier.

On a more serious note: The question of how we should relate to Tisha B’Av in 2012 is not a simple one. On the one hand, due to the lack of the Temple in Jerusalem, we clearly cannot fulfill all of the mitzvot in the Torah. On the other hand, as we sing on Passover, “If He had brought us into the Land of Israel, and not built for us the Holy Temple — dayenu, it would have sufficed!”

What makes Tisha B’Av such a significant day is that it commemorates many tragedies and disasters in Jewish history — from the sin of the spies in the desert, to the destruction of both temples, to the crushing of the Bar Kochba revolt by the Romans. (Later events, such as the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, also fell on this day, but they are not relevant to the issue I am bringing up in this post.)

What we see here in these original events is mourning over three different locations: the Land of Israel, Jerusalem, and the Temple. In order to understand what Tisha B’Av means today, we need to make sure we don’t confuse the three.

The sin of the spies was the refusal to enter and embrace the Land of Israel. Even though Jews have had a mitzva to live in the Land from the time the Torah was given, certainly today there is nothing preventing any Jew in the world from moving here and staying here. By the relatively simple act of getting on a plane, we can (and should) rectify the sin of the spies. Once we started coming in large numbers, God granted us the State of Israel — a miraculous sign of his satisfaction with us taking the Land seriously after so many years.

On the other hand, while all Jews have an obligation to go up to the Land of Israel, the same cannot be said of the Temple Mount. Rav Yoel Bin-Nun has quoted his teacher Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook as saying that unlike building the land, building the Temple does require divine intervention. And why are we not worthy, despite all of our efforts in building the land and protecting it to that divine intervention?

Rav Yoel points out the verse (Tehilim 24):

“Who may climb the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart…”

If anyone is not sure whether or not we’ve reached the ethical level necessary for this blessing – simply read the news. We have not eliminated corruption, oppression, and violence. We are not a shining example of justice and fairness. This is something worth crying over – in fact, even if the Temple were to stand today, but our society had not improved to a level deserving it – we should perhaps still fast and cry.

But what of Jerusalem? How can we say in the “Nachem” prayer (at Mincha on Tisha B’Av) that Jerusalem is a “city … desolate without inhabitants”? This fails to reflect the reality of today’s Jerusalem, and if said with any intent, can show lack of gratitude for what we have received and achieved.

However, it is important to note that the Nachem prayer was not likely composed after the destruction of the Temple, but rather after the Bar Kochba revolt was put down and Jews were banned from Jerusalem. (The prayer does not actually mention the Temple at all!). Here our situation clearly has improved dramatically.

Therefore, for many years I have said a different version of the prayer, called “Rachem”. It was composed by the late esteemed Prof. Ephraim Urbach, based on the Jerusalem Talmud (Berachot 4:3). It mentions “Jerusalem, built up from its destruction… settled from its desolation”. It notes those who gave their lives for kiddush hashem and Jerusalem. It thanks God for redeeming the city, and prays for its peace.

I have uploaded the text here:

http://tinyurl.com/rachem

and an image here:

http://tinyurl.com/lhunfr

By saying a more honest prayer, I believe we are avoiding repeating the sin of the spies, who cried – a “crying for nothing” as the rabbis called it – when they should have been excited about the opportunity to fulfill God’s promise to the patriarchs.

I strongly believe that ethics and honesty dictate that not only do we mourn over what we are missing, but we thank God for what He has given us. And if we increase our honesty and ethical behavior towards God, perhaps we can do the same towards our fellow man as well.

If we can do that, we will be worthy of the Temple, and then indeed we will not need to fast on Tisha B’Av – even when it does not fall on Shabbat.

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An alternative perspective on the question of whether or not Jews should still fast on Tisha B’Av can be found here.