Every year since 1948 people have been trying to declare Tishah B’Av obsolete. “How can we mourn,” they ask, “for a broken and defeated Jerusalem, when we see before our eyes a revived, resurgent State of Israel and Jerusalem as a united, rebuilt capital city?”
It is a fair and reasonable question. Yet Jewish tragedy did not begin or end with the destruction of the Temple on 9 Av in ancient days. There was hardly a century in which yet another disaster did not occur on Tishah B’Av.
• The first Temple was destroyed on 9 Av, 586 BCE.
• On 9 Av, 70 CE, the second Temple was destroyed.
• On 9 Av, 135 CE, the Romans overthrew Betar, the last Jewish fortress.
• On 9 Av, 136 CE, Jerusalem was ploughed over at the command of Emperor Hadrian.
Thus the day already associated with disaster began to assume what a modern writer has called “a mystical quality of doom”.
• On 9 Av, 1290, the Jews were expelled from England.
• On 9 Av, 1306, the Jews were expelled from France.
• On 9 Av, 1492, the Jews were expelled from Spain.
The rulers and regimes responsible for these expulsions could hardly have known how ominous the day already was. Isaac Abravanel could only suggest that when Jeremiah said “in her month shall they find her”, he was prophesying calamities that would occur in every age.
• On 9 Av, 1914, the First World War broke out.
• On 9 Av, 1929, a major anti-Jewish riot started in the Land of Israel, shaking the Yishuv to its very foundation.
• Edict of Expulsion of the Jews of Spain, 1492.
• On 9 Av, 1942, a massive movement of Polish Jews to the camps of annihilation took place.
There is more than enough to remember on Tishah B’Av.
It is fitting for a people with a unique sense of history to associate this day with a ritual of remembrance for all the martyrs of the last two and a half thousand years.
On Tishah B’Av we re-enact the past. At first the synagogue is dark, with hardly any lights on. Ark and reading desk are stripped of their covers, the congregation sit low down like mourners, and the service commences a melody of pathos and grief.And we are there. At the scenes of fire and devastation at the destruction of Jerusalem, we are there.
We are there at the execution of ten rabbis, mighty in learning as the cedars of Lebanon, in the days of Roman oppression.
We are there with Judah HaLevi as he sings longingly of Zion, so close to his thoughts yet so distant in physical fact.
We are there as rioting mobs are unleashed on the Jews in land after land; as Jews are massacred in every country of Europe; as pitiful remnants move on, homeless, from place to place, the Wandering Jew incarnate.
We are there in Czarist Russia at the height of the pogroms; we are there in the Holocaust in the midst of the six million who were tortured and exterminated by the most inhuman and bestial enemy of all time.
Tishah B’Av takes us back, re-living it all.
But this is 2010. Biblical prophecy has come true. There is a State of Israel. Jerusalem is re-built and re-united. Must we still harp on old events? Are we secretly afraid that the catalogue of calamity is not yet completed, that the horrible power of this black day has not spent itself completely? Have we not had more than enough of tragedy and tears?
There is an answer in the drama of the Tishah B’Av ritual. We do not spend the whole of the day in gloom and unrelieved mourning. At a certain point we rise from the low seats of mourners and stand upright. We abandon the gloomy atmosphere and the dirge-like melodies. We sing confidently and optimistically of redemption and joy.
For centuries we did this in almost prophetic seeking towards the future of hope and happiness which a distant day would see. Now we do it in realisation that the day of real redemption is slowly dawning.
Talmudic literature tells a story of four great sages, Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Akiva. Once they went up to visit the Holy City, and, approaching the Temple mount, they saw a fox running from the ruins. Three of the rabbis wept at the scene, but Rabbi Akiva laughed. “Why are you laughing?” they asked. “Surely, when a fox runs among the ruins of our Holy Temple, weeping is more appropriate than laughter!”
Akiva answered: “There are two prophecies concerning Zion and Jerusalem. The first, by Uriah the priest, says Zion shall be ‘ploughed under like a field’. The second, by Zechariah, tells of the time when old men and women will sit in peace along the streets of Jerusalem. Until the first prophecy was fulfilled, I was not certain about the second one. But now that I see one prophecy come true before my eyes, I am certain the second will also be fulfilled!”
Our generation has, thank God, seen Akiva’s optimism vindicated. We have seen the latter-day fulfilment of the first prophecy, with the ploughing under of Zion, in a metaphorical sense, by Nazi brutality. But we have also seen the beginning of the fulfilment of Zechariah’s vision, with the establishment of Israel and the re-unification of Jerusalem.
When we keep Tishah B’Av, we reconstruct the bitter past in order to appreciate the unique privilege of living in an age of fulfilment. We have no secret fear that anything remains of the day’s former power to attract tragedy. We keep the fast day as a solemn promise to our ancestors of a hundred and fifty generations,
“We shall not forget you!” We keep it as an oath to Zion, “We shall never allow you to be wrested from us!”
We keep it as a pledge to unborn generations stretching ahead of us to eternity, affirming, “We shall cherish Zion and the faith of Judaism, and pass them on to you as a holy heritage!”