Tisha B’Av, the annual fast day commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, may be the day of the year most relevant to today’s Jewish world.
Tisha B’Av, first and foremost, marks a period of mourning. In the days and weeks that precede it, it is customary to refrain from cutting hair, buying clothes, and celebrating weddings. On the eve of Tisha B’Av, the mourning period culminates with the reading of the bleak elegies of the Book of Lamentations.
Our mourning the destruction of the Temples is intended to be different from the more familiar mourning over the death of loved ones. When we lose close relatives, we sit shiva to enable visitors to comfort us and ease our way out of personal grief back to public life. We recite Kaddish, which proclaims God’s greatness, even in death, and gives expression to human frailty in the face of the chaos it engenders, as if to say, “We understand nothing, but acknowledge God’s presence nonetheless.”
On Tisha B’Av, tradition moves our grief in the opposite direction. In stunning contrast to the consolation provided by Kaddish, the Book of Lamentations offers devastating descriptions of Jerusalem’s destruction, and assigns blame both to the enemies of the Jewish people, and the Jews themselves. “Jerusalem sinned,” cries the prophet, “Thus it was abandoned.” We learn from the Talmudic sages that “Jerusalem’s sin” in the Second Temple period was sinat chinam—baseless hatred—internal conflict that was allowed to persist without consideration of its consequences. We played a role in our own undoing, they tell us. Our sense of public loss is now compounded by personal sorrow.
This inward turn serves a critical purpose. By reminding us how individual behavior can lead to collective catastrophe, Tisha B’Av asks each of us to take a sober look at the role we play in the political world, and to assume responsibility for our communal well-being. It teaches us, as Abraham Lincoln reiterated 1,800 years later, that “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”
In our own time, when Jews around the world castigate Israel or are disaffected by it, and when Israelis shun Jews living outside Israel, Tisha B’av reminds us that we must respect one another, renew our commitments to one other, and take responsibility for our shared Jewish world. To do less would ignore the lessons of the past, and invite further tragedies in the future.