Yosef Merves
Forging New Perspectives on Jewish Identity

What does Tisha B’Av mean to me?

I have heard many amazing ideas over the last 36 hours about how to relate to Tisha B’Av today and I will attempt to share a few of them here. Tisha B’Av, commemorating the destruction of the two Beit HaMikdashim in Jerusalem among many other historical tragedies such as the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, and dating back to the false report of the 10 spies who delayed our entrance into Israel by 38 years, is often a confusing holiday. We are mourning the loss of something which we never really knew in the first place. We never saw the Beit HaMikdash, never walked into the Courtyard, never saw the Kohaim bringing sacrifices or the Levites singing. We might have an idea of what occurred from descriptions in the Tanach and possibly from visiting the Temple Institute Museum in the Old City, but we never experienced it. So we can’t mourn for a past that we never knew, but we can mourn for the future of what will happen if we don’t have the Beit HaMikdash rebuilt and we remain in exile and fighting for control of our land. What will become with the Jewish people, what will become of ourselves personally. How will we continue to survive?

This Tisha B’Av, I think about being outwardly Jewish in an increasingly hostile society.  I think about the 19-year-old yeshiva student who was stabbed to death in Israel a few days ago, the man who was shot outside the Young Israel of North Miami Beach two weeks ago, the men and women shot in synagogues across the USA, others who were attacked across the USA and Europe, and the cemeteries which are desecrated. Being Jewish is not always easy, subscribing to a different way of thinking than the rest of the world, following a system of rules codified hundreds and thousands of years ago. Not being afraid to be different, to engage in some activities and refrain from others.

I am certainly proud to be Jewish and this also means having a shared collective memory and yearning for a particular outcome in our future. What does it mean for Mosiach to come, for the service of the Beit HaMikdash to return, for Jewish sovereignty and Jewish courts to return to Eretz Israel? This longing is a central tenet of Judaism, mentioned in davening three times a day, but have I really internalized this message? Is my soul really longing for this connection? I can’t say I have really felt this longing for a new era that uproots everything I know, to relocate and live a different style of life that I can’t fully comprehend.

When I visit the Kotel, I do feel a special spiritual connection. I’m in a holy place, a place that transcends simple physical space and is a reminder of what we used to have, an ability to come close to Hashem on a daily basis, a proximity that we are so removed from now.  The stones of the Kotel are the hearts of Jewish people, filled with our notes and our tears and worn by our handprints. Our hearts are at the Kotel and on Har HaBayit, the Temple Mount. Everything about Judiasm is centered around this spot. We face the Kotel when we pray, no matter where we are. One of the first sections of davening in the morning, before the first Kaddish, is a recounting of the daily offerings. What we are missing and what we are yearning for again is a shared national identity, but these days of glory won’t return to us if we don’t get along, if our hearts are still filled with baseless hatred and we spurn one another.

We caused our demise because of baseless hatred and fragmentation, and so we have to rectify that both with recognizing the effects our hatred has on ourselves- bearing a grudge usually hurts the bearer more than the object of the grudge- and by striving for causeless love. People will annoy us, that is what happens when you live and interact with other humans. We are going to annoy and offend each other. So when this happens, we have to think what is it about ourselves that is reacting to this person, why are we becoming offended.  We should also think about the person and where they are coming from. Why are they acting this way? But we should also think of their positive qualities, the times they have helped us in the past, the great things they do for other people. Spend five minutes being the person’s advocate, extolling their attributes and you will find your annoyance at them disappearing. Start with your family, with your friends and acquaintances, and build up to the Jewish community. There are many Jews practicing many different streams of Judaism, which causes a lot of tension and strife between less religious and non-religious people.

There is a stigma against being religious in our society, and Orthodox Jews are often considered weird, archaic, backwards cult members by less religious Jews, and the first step in bringing B’nai Israel together is twofold. Orthodox Jews have to learn to see the Divine Spark in each other and recognize the positive qualities each other has rather than the difference in halachic practice and interpretation, and non-Orthodox Jews have to understand and appreciate Orthodox Jews, which will in turn lead to Orthodox Jews having less animosity towards the less religious. Judaism wouldn’t have survived without the passionate, ardent adherents striving to maintain and uphold their traditions against all odds. Everyone who considers themselves Jewish today only knows they are Jewish because their grandparents or great-grandparents fought hard to maintain their Judaism, and so rather than looking down at Orthodox Jews, they should be honored and recognized for their efforts and contributions.

One of the main debate points revolves around the need for ultra-Orthodox Jews to isolate themselves in uniform societies. Kedushah, or holiness, needs a special space in which to exist, and this space requires walls and fences built around it. It can’t exist freely and intermingled with other ideas, otherwise it would lose its’ holiness and sanctity. Separation is necessary for Judaism to remain Judaism, and there are too many other influences directly opposing it. Historical experience has shown them that isolationism is the only way to preserve their way of life, staying in ghettos and not interacting with the outside world. Until recently, Jews who assimilated into secular society never really found their way back to Judaism, they were lost forever.

Only in the current generation are more people seeking to become more religious and my hope is that this phenomenon will lead to greater understanding between the different branches, because of a lot of the disagreements really comes from misunderstandings.

Honestly, the easiest way for Orthodox Jews to look more favorably on non-Orthodox ones is when they feel treated with honor and respect, and once they feel their way of life is not being attacked or ridiculed, then they will become more open to sharing and interacting.

I am pained by the animosity that I see exhibited, how we look for ways to tear down and demonize our brothers and sisters when we should be looking for ways to strengthen each other and build each other up. I’m navigating this path myself as I spend more time in a religious community and continue my own religious growth. There are plenty of times when I have been made to feel “less welcomed” or a lesser member of society, and there are plenty of times when I have mentally disparaged other Jews as well. One thought that strikes me is that having Emunah in Hashem is so important and so difficult at the same time.  Questioning is important, that leads to greater understanding, and is certainly encouraged in Judaism, but that questioning has to come from the right place, from wanting to know the answer and understand the other person, not from trying to poke holes in someone else’s argument, to “win” the debate.

Questioning that doesn’t come from sincerity and curiosity shows a lack of faith in Hashem Himself, that we don’t trust in His Ways, and we don’t believe His Truths. When we ridicule Torah scholars and their practices, this might be a defense mechanism because we feel uncomfortable, or we feel guilty or jealous that we don’t have the same level of knowledge and Emunah. I’ve been lucky to have met many different rabbis, and even non-rabbis who I would consider holy and spiritual people. And I’m often struck by their aura of holiness, which I see in their sincerity and their passion and enthusiasm.  For Judaism, but also for Jews, for helping other people, wanting to share their knowledge and love for life with them.  Knowledge is important, but the personal connection is even greater, the people who want you to feel what they are feeling, to share their secrets and wisdom with you.

We have to bond over the common threads that bind us together, seeing the positive attributes in each other, and what messages we can learn from each other, what actions and behaviors we can incorporate into our own lives. Our future depends upon it.  All we really have are each other, other allies are temporary and have different agendas.  Judging each person favorably is the first step to ensuring that this Tisha B’Av will be the last Tisha B’Av that we observe and that next year we will be able to celebrate and dance together in Jerusalem. Our Beit HaMikdash may have been destroyed but each one of us is a personal Beit HaMikdash with an internal, eternal flame that emanates out from us through our faces, our words, and our actions. Flames are powerful, they can destroy or they can bring warmth to our surroundings. It’s up to us to decide how to direct it. Sharing our flames with each other makes our flames greater than they could ever be individually and there’s no time like the present to celebrate together and proudly build our Jewish communities and place our own handprints on history. L’Shannah Haba’ah b’Yerushalayim Habnuyah!!

About the Author
Born and raised in a Modern Orthodox/Conservadox home in Miami, FL, Yosef first started to increase his Jewish knowledge while learning at Boston University. Afterward, he lived on Manhattan's Upper West Side for several years and was an active member of several shuls, including Manhattan Jewish Experience where he completed the Fellowship program. He spent the last two years studying full-time at Machon Shlomo in Har Nof, Jerusalem and now resides in New Jersey. He always had a strong Jewish identity and wants to encourage others to build and strengthen theirs as well.
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