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New Meaning for an Ancient Observance

07/25/2017 06:59:31 PM


July 25, 2017
by Cantor David Frommer

Here’s a fun trivia question that’s sure to make you the life of the cocktail party: When is the only other full day of fasting in the Jewish year besides Yom Kippur? If you answered Tisha B’Av, congratulations—you’re just about as qualified to serve on Sherith Israel’s clergy team as I am! If you didn’t know the answer, don’t worry—most Reform Jews wouldn’t have known it either. In English, the phrase Tisha B’Av means “the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av,” and our tradition teaches that the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem were both destroyed (in 586 BCE and 70 CE, respectively) on this very day. This shabbat, Shabbat Hazon, is our final Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, and an appropriate time to reflect on the holiday’s meaning.

It’s no coincidence that Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur are the only occasions when we’re supposed to fast for a full day. The rabbinic sages of the Talmud saw a direct link between the two. Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement, is when we recognize the ways in which our behavior has failed to reflect our values, and recommit ourselves to narrowing that shortfall in the coming year. It’s a somber day, but it’s also an optimistic one. The Book of Lamentations teaches us that such return, or improvement, is possible for all of us, provided that we acknowledge something bigger than ourselves. “Hashiveinu Adonai eilecha v’nashuva—Cause us to return to you, O God, and we will return.” These words, familiar to many of us from the conclusion of the Torah service on Shabbat morning, are sung throughout the High Holidays and elegantly summarize their optimistic outlook.  

Tisha B’Av, by contrast, is a day of not only commemoration, but also of warning. Our sages taught that the First Temple was destroyed because the Jewish community had become rife with murder, adultery and idolatry, the three cardinal sins of Judaism, and that the Second Temple was destroyed because that same community, generations later, had become poisoned by sinat chinam, “baseless hatred” between its rival factions. They saw the destruction of the Temples on Tisha B’Av as the catastrophic consequence that follows when we fail to take Yom Kippur seriously. Admittedly, our sages were generally more comfortable with retribution theology than we are (especially in the wake of the Holocaust), but none of us would disagree with their fundamental observation that when people behave badly, whether with violence or hatred, worse things usually follow. Yom Kippur is not just serious business because the rabbi and the cantor say so, but because Tisha B’Av reminds us of what has happened in our history, and what could happen in the future, if we fail to act with kindness and respect.

Indeed, both our American community and our Jewish community seem plagued by a troubling lack of civility, whether between Republican and Democratic voters or between Orthodox and Liberal Jews. As modern Reform Jews, we surely do not mourn the destruction of the Temples because we wish to return to a version of our religion with animal sacrifices and patriarchal priests. But let us recognize with equal surety that the insights of our sages into the human behavior behind those disasters have much to teach us as we begin our preparations for Yom Kippur and strive to mend a world that is, at present, just as much in need of our work as it ever was in the past.

Sat, March 17 2018 1 Nisan 5778