Hope after Tisha B’Av

The halachic principle of chinuch mandates that as a child grows older, they should be educated by their parents in the performance of mitzvot. However, there are some mitzvot that we don’t rush to teach them. Many halachic authorities argue that children should not fast on Tisha B’Av because we do not want to educate them that the Temple’s destruction is a permanent reality.[1] Perhaps next year the messiah will come and the world will finally be redeemed. Why educate them to perform a mitzvah that we hope and pray they will not have to carry out?

Though this approach may be inspiring, it is not without its flaws. It has been said that the definition of insanity is attempting the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. Yet, for two millennia that is exactly what Jews have done. We pray and hope each day for our broken world to be redeemed and yet every year Tisha B’Av comes along, and we mourn once again. At what point does hope become delusional; a defense mechanism that we employ to protect our naïve faith?

The book of Eichah points to an answer. Much of it evokes the psychological ramifications of the Temple’s destruction. Feelings of degradation, shame, and anger resound throughout, and it is in many ways a dark dark book.

He has worn away my flesh and skin;

He has shattered my bones.

All around me He has built

Misery and hardship;

He has made me dwell in darkness,

Like those long dead.

He has walled me in and I cannot break out;

He has weighed me down with chains.

And when I cry and plead,

He shuts out my prayer.

(Eichah 3:4-8)

The kind of pain described in Eichah suffocates the imagination and erases our belief that the future will look different from the present. However, the book of Eichah also surprises us. Expressions of suffering and despair are interspersed with the language of hope. Later in the same chapter, the prophet says:

But this do I call mind,

Therefore I have hope:

The kindness of the Lord has not ended

His mercies are not spent.

They are renewed every morning

Ample is your grace

(Eichah 3:21-23)

Hope, as is always the case, is grounded in faith. Despite our misery, we believe that God’s goodness endures. Every morning the sun rises once again and shines the light of new possibilities upon us. The book of Eichah does not depict a linear progression from suffering to hope. Rather, it vacillates between the two; steps forward and steps backward.

At best, Eichah asks us to retain the plausibility of hope even when reality repeatedly frustrates our desire for it. The journey is long, but without hope we will not reach our destination.

However, when Tisha B’av passes once again and the messiah has yet to come, we need our hope to be bolstered. In the haftarah for Shabbat Nachamu, God attempts to comfort the Jewish people by describing for them the redeemed world that will eventually come into being.

A voice rings out:

“Clear in the desert

A road for the Lord!

Level in the wilderness

A highway for our God!

Let every valley be raised,

Every hill and mount made low.

Let the rugged ground become level

And the ridges become a plain.

The Presence of the Lord shall appear,

And all flesh, as one shall behold-

For the Lord Himself has spoken

(Yishaiyahu 40:3-5)

These verses are a response to an uneven and broken world full of peaks and valleys. A world of hierarchies and injustice where power can be abused and the weak oppressed. But God repeats over and over again that this is not meant to last. The mountains will be leveled and the valleys will be raised. Inequality will be eliminated and all humanity will come to know God.

It is this spiritual vision of a more perfect world that comforts the Jewish people because it offers hope, and it is hope that provides the strength to persevere after tragedy and loss. No matter how terrible the world may appear right now, hope infuses our lives with the awareness that things can and will be different.

Our hope is further bolstered in the weeks following Tisha B’Av with the start of Elul when Psalm 27 is recited each day. It is a unique psalm that expresses the complexity of God’s presence in our lives. It concludes with a powerful statement of the way in which faith leads to hope:

Hope to God; Be strong and have courage! Hope to God.

(Tehillim, 27:14)

The repetition of hope in the verse, hope after hope, is given a unique Talmudic interpretation. Rabbi Chama bar Chanina explains, “If a person prays and sees that their prayers were not answered, they should pray again.” (Talmud) Prayer and hope go hand in hand. Just as we must pray again and again, so too we must work to keep hope alive each day. Rav Kook, in his commentary on Talmudic aggadah, further expands upon this idea. [2] He explains that prayer doesn’t just target individual specific needs. It actually works to intensify our ideas and visions of a more perfect future. The shemoneh esrei embodies our aspirations for wisdom, justice, and righteousness that will collectively transform each one of us, the Jewish people, and the world.

There are times, however, perhaps even most of the time, when our prayers go unanswered and unanswered prayers can be a recipe for disaster. If we keep hoping and praying that something will happen but it never does, it can lead to feelings of powerlessness and despair. Rav Kook explains that our prayers go unanswered not because God fails to hear them but because some spiritual ideas require strengthening before they can be brought into reality. Each time we pray, however, it brings our spiritual vision one step closer. This is not because prayer has a magical effect on the world, but because prayer changes us. As our vision of a more just and holy world intensifies, we are able to find within ourselves the strength to take the concrete steps that will make it possible.

The act of prayer requires us to leave open the possibility that the future is not yet known. This is a lesson that we tend to forget as we get older. I think perhaps children refrain from fasting on Tisha B’Av less so for themselves and more so for their parents. We need reminders that hope is not only possible but necessary, and this perhaps is the greatest comfort of all. The writer and social activist Rebecca Solnit explains:

Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act… Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same.

(Hope in the Dark, p, xiv)

 

[1] For example, see Siach Nahum 32, the teshuvot of Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch.

[2]  Olat HaReiyah Vol. 1, p. 25.

About the Author
Rabbi Zachary Truboff recently made aliyah and moved with his family to Jerusalem. He is the director of the English speaking program at Bina L'Itim, a project of Yeshivat Siach Yitzchak and an educator for the Hartman Institute. For nearly a decade, he served as the rabbi of Cedar Sinai Syagogue in Cleveland, OH. He is an officer of the International Rabbinic Fellowship. He has a passion for using Jewish texts and ideas along with contemporary thought to address important issues of the day.
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