Thursday, July 23, 2015

Tisha B'Av, Tragedies and Celebrating

According to tradition Tisha B’Av marks far more than the destructions of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. by the Babylonians and the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E. The Mishnah adds even more calamities. On this day the ten spies returned to Moses with a negative report about the land of Israel, sowing discontent among the people and ensuring our wandering would last 40 years. On this day in 135 C.E. the Romans crushed the Bar Kokhba revolt, killing over 500,000 Jews and leveling the city of Jerusalem and its Temple Mount. In 135 our wanderings outside of the land began yet again and did not of course end until the modern era with the birth of the State of Israel.

Later tradition suggests even more tragedies occurred on Tisha B’Av. The First Crusade in which nearly one million Jews were killed in Europe began on the ninth of Av. On this day as well, the Jews were expelled from England in 1290, France in 1306 and Spain in 1492. On this day, in 1941, Heinrich Himmler (y”s) received approval for the Nazis’ murderous final solution. And in 1942 the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto began on Tisha B’Av.

How can this be? How can all these tragedies begin on this same day? To be honest I am skeptical about the historicity of these ascriptions. It is doubtful that all these events did in fact begin on Tisha B’Av. So the question is what does this conflation of all these tragedies into one day say about our tradition. Why does our tradition fold all these calamitous events into Tisha B’Av?

Over the centuries the narrative is further enhanced. Our victimization comes to revolve around this one day. There are those who even see in these tragedies the sins of our people. Our victimization then becomes our responsibility. These tragedies become our doing. The Talmud blames the destruction of the Temple on sinat chinam, baseless hatred among Jews.

Thus Tisha B’Av is the antithesis to modernity and Zionism. We have now a sovereign nation. We have now a strong State of Israel. Of course there are threats. But with sovereignty we will no longer be victims. We are no longer at the mercy of foreign powers. It might, especially during these days, appear otherwise but Zionism teaches that history is now ours to be written. Our generation can defend ourselves like no prior generation. Zionist philosophy refuses to see the Jewish people as eternal victims. Current threats must not transform us once again into seeing ourselves as victims.

Perhaps that is the intuition of our tradition. Why one day? To suggest that one day is enough. Yes there are other days associated with historical events (Tzom Gedaliah, Tenth of Tevet and Seventeenth of Tammuz), but these are minor fast days and do not have the import of Tisha B’Av. And so this single day suggests that one day is in fact enough to beat our chests and lament our losses.

The hallmark of our tradition is that it codifies joy over mourning, celebration over tragedy. A single day is enough to mourn the many catastrophes that have befallen our people for we could in fact fill a calendar year with a list of tragedies. And so myth and memory are folded together and wrapped into the Ninth of Av. We observe all calamities on one day. The rest of the days in the calendar are reserved to affirm the present and look toward the future.

The tradition suggests that if every today becomes the eighth of Av with its trepidation and fear and every tomorrow the ninth of Av with its mourning and lament, we will be unable to celebrate, we will be unable to sing. And then we will be unable, or unwilling, to march forward toward the tenth of Av.

One day is enough to look back and cry. The remainder must be left to celebrate.

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