Tisha B’Av Thoughts, 2012

Regardless of what else is going on in today’s Jewish world, Tisha B’Av- the fast of the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av- and the three weeks that lead up to it- is a sad and dispiriting time.

I remember well how, in the immediate aftermath of Israel’s remarkable victory in the Six Day War of 1967, there were voices in the Jewish community that called for an end to the observance of Tisha B’Av. After all, Jerusalem was hardly desolate, or in ruins. In fact, the exact opposite was the case. The Jewish State was sovereign over a united Jerusalem, many were seeing Israel’s victory as miraculous and a sign of divine favor, there was building going on everywhere in the city, and the future looked spectacularly bright.

One needn’t be an expert on contemporary geopolitical realities to know that the situation of today’s Jerusalem is, to put it as benignly as I can, more complicated than it seemed to be forty-five years ago. There is still much to be proud of, even in awe of, in today’s Jerusalem, but there are also deep and troubling divisions along social, economic, and ethnic lines that threaten the long-term viability of the city. Few and far between are those who would see atchalta d’geulah- the beginning of redemption- in today’s teeming capital city.

Truth to tell, one could make a powerful case for the truest significance of Tisha B’Av being unrelated to the state of being of modern Jerusalem. After all, the primary impetus for the mourning and fast has nothing at all to do with modern Jewish existence. It relates back, of course, primarily to the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem, horrific and uniquely Jerusalem-centered catastrophes that befell our people thousands of years ago. In subsequent centuries, however, enemies of the Jewish people timed their harshest assaults on us to coincide with Tisha B’Av. The expulsions from Spain and England took place on this day, and the Nazis began mass deportations to Treblinka on Tisha B’Av as well.

It is undoubtedly true that Tisha B’Av is, first and foremost, a day of mourning for historical tragedies. For that reason- if only for that reason- it would be, I think, an affront to Jewish historical memory to even contemplate doing away with the observance of Tisha B’Av.

But though the historical dimension of Tisha B’Av is its primary raison d’etre, I also regard it as unwise to disregard entirely the contemporary state of being of not only Israel and Jerusalem, but also of the Jewish world.

If, as the ancient rabbis posited, the second Temple was destroyed because of the sin of sin’at chinam- senseless hatred between and among Jews- then clearly we do not seem to have internalized the painful lessons of our own history. All are guilty. Some are clearly more guilty than others, but hatred generates hatred, and today’s Jewish world is fairly characterized as a place where sin’at chinam abounds in frightening proportions. With all the enemies that we have- real enemies- we are, clearly, weakened by our own divisions, and seemingly powerless to do all that much about it.

And as for the real enemies that we have, well… the threats that they present to Israel and Jewish continuity are not figments of a chronically hyperactive Jewish disposition to see anti-Semites around every corner. Israel is at greater risk that at any time in recent memory, and the Arab spring that began with such great promise has brought little but increased vulnerability to her. For all that she is a regional superpower, Israel once again finds herself in a strategic position not unlike that immediately preceding the aforementioned Six-Day War. If, God forbid, Israel has to go to war once again, the odds of its being one that lasts six days are virtually non-existent… It would be awful. Clearly, the Jewish world has a vital and indispensable role to play in insuring that Israel is not put in that position- a role that can only be played by a united Jewish community.

History is not necessarily destiny. There is, thankfully, no guarantee that our history must, inevitably, repeat itself. But perhaps the most important lesson to be internalized in advance of Tisha B’Av is that the surest way to prevent that from happening is to become a stronger and more cohesive Jewish community. And the only way to accomplish that is to learn how to practice what Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook would have called ahavat chinam instead of sin’at chinam- senseless love instead of senseless hatred.

We could use a generous dose of senseless love…

Wishing you all a meaningful fast-

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.