“You can’t spell ‘bereaved’ without ‘Av.’” - Elisson
As the sun sets this evening, the blackest day of the Jewish calendar begins: the ninth of Av, AKA Tisha b’Av.
There is a whole litany of disasters and calamities that have befallen the Jews over the years, a disproportionate number of them on Tisha b’Av... at least, by popular and rabbinic attribution. Chief among these are the destruction of not one, but two Holy Temples in Jerusalem, 490 years apart. Each of these events led to a lengthy period of exile, the latter one lasting almost two thousand years. Not for nothing are we called Wandering Jews.
Many non-observant Jews don’t know a whole lot about the customs of the day - or, for that matter, its very existence. It’s not a jolly holiday by any stretch of the imagination. It doesn’t fall into the “solemn, but uplifting” category as does Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It’s just plain depressing.
On Tisha b’Av, prayers are not chanted or sung as they are every other day; they are recited in a quiet monotone. We chant the Book of Lamentations in a haunting, elegiac melody. Common everyday pleasures such as shaving, wearing leather shoes, and the Making of the Two-Backed Beast are off-limits, as is eating and drinking. We even refrain from saying “good morning,” acknowledging our friends and acquaintances instead with monosyllabic grunts: “Yo.” “Oy.”
It says a lot about our attachment to Jerusalem and the Promised Land, that we continue to mourn its loss after so many years. Do modern Italians bewail the fall of Imperial Rome, or Austrians and Hungarians the Hapsburg Empire?
In the spring of 2008, Elder Daughter and I found ourselves in the midst of a bustling, vibrant, modern city: Hiroshima, Japan. Six hundred meters above the very spot where I stood, Little Boy had exploded on August 6, 1945 - sixty-six years and two days ago - reducing the city to smoking, radioactive ruins. The Romans managed to do the same to Jerusalem without the help of fissile uranium, plowing the site of the second Temple and its surrounding precincts until no stick was left standing. Utter destruction.
Today, flowers grow in Hiroshima. Life is persistent, and it returns where it is welcome. And after almost two thousand years, we have come home.
Flowers in Hiroshima.
There are some that believe that upon the arrival of the Messianic Era, Tisha b’Av will no longer be observed as a fast day, but rather as an occasion of joy. I don’t see that happening any time soon, yet there is a silver lining even so.
The destruction of the Temple marked the beginning of a long, painful period in Jewish history... almost two millennia of stateless wanderings. Yet it also was the end of the sacrificial cult, the Old-School religion that called for thrice-yearly pilgrimages to Jerusalem and the slaughter of untold numbers of lambs, bullocks, rams, goats, birds, et alia.
After our people passed through the fiery furnace of the Roman conquest, we emerged on the other side as a nation with a belief system that no longer demanded the blood of animals, but instead stressed ethics and learning. Two thousand years of exile would have erased every last Jew from the face of the earth if we still practiced the ancient Jerusalem-centric ways. Instead, we now have a faith that is as portable as a prayerbook, one that can fit in the space of a human heart. We have evolved, and we are the better for it.
May this Tisha b’Av bring hope in the power of the human heart to heal... and in the power of faith to grow and evolve.