Do you think we have we lost sight of the “original” tragedy of Tisha B’Av – the destruction of the Temple – in all of the more “modern” tragedies? Or is it supposed to be this way, since 9 Av is our national day of mourning, perhaps it’s natural that the tragedies of long ago are mourned less and less as time goes on.
I suggest distinguishing two types of mourning. The first type entails memories that pale as time passes. Do you recall the Massacre of the Jews of York in 1190? How about the destruction in 1391 of the Jewish communities of Spain? Probably not. Tragedies fade away. Time diminishes pain. Similarly, when a person mourns a relative, there is a gradual lessening of mourning from the immediate mourning of onan, to shivah (1st seven days) to shloshim (30 days) and finally to yahrtzeit (yearly observance). Memory dissipates. Time heals.
However, there is a second type of mourning. It is functional and situational. It implies remembering a glorious setting that has vanished, grieving a beautiful intimacy that has been destroyed. Such mourning serves a different purpose. It keeps hope alive. It stimulates action to reconstruct a new and better home. It enjoins reflecting upon mistakes and learning from past errors. It provides a framework for dedicated work to recreate the idealized past. This type of mourning is a major function of Tisha b'Av.
The prototype of Tisha b'Av is to remember our exile from Israel and the destruction of the Temple as a way of encouraging return, rebuilding and teshuva. Thus, today, when through our struggles we have returned to the land of our ancestors, rebuilt our sovereignty and can rejoice in Jerusalem, Tisha b'Av has acquired a totally new meaning.
At weddings, a time of great joy and expectation, we break a glass and recite the verse from Psalms 137, 5-6, "If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem let my right hand be forgotten…". This is based on the Talmudic mandate (Babba Batra 60b) interpreting the verse at the end of Isaiah (66,10) to mean that great joy is promised to those who both love and mourn Jerusalem. By remembering the past we give appreciation to the present and anticipate the future. This is a bridge over and beyond time that gives meaning to our joys in the present and inspirational comfort towards the future.
I would like to address your question from my personal vantage point here in Jerusalem. I live on French Hill-Mt. Scopus, and every day, as I exercise in the sports center at the Hebrew U. gym, I can look out the window and see the Temple Mt. with the sweep of Jewish history, the mythological grandeur of the past and the utopian vision of the future. Breathing in the fresh air of Jerusalem, we are free to dance in the streets. Jeremiah 33, 10-11: In this place that you say is desolate, in the cities of Judea and in the outskirts of Jerusalem, the sounds of rejoicing and happiness will be heard … This is the prophecy of Zechariah 7,19 that the four Fast Days of mourning are destined to be transformed into a time of rejoicing, joy and holidays.
Here in Israel, the memory of the Temple's destruction has taken on a new national ethos. Reciting the lamentations now gives poignant meaning to the Messianic anticipation. It is out of the darkness that we can envision the dawn of redemption. This is mourning over the lost "situation", and the goal is to restore the joy and grandeur. The restoration of national independence, the freedom to walk in Jerusalem, the pride in the revival of Jewish history, are all small steps towards the fulfillment of a grand Messianic vision of national purpose and spiritual meaning.
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (1925-1994), the great singer and poetic story teller, described Tisha b'Av as a harbinger of utopian rejuvenation, a hope for renewed intimacy, an anticipation of Messiah:
Jerusalem, the Holy Temple, is where we are intimate with God. The Holy Temple is the headquarters for being close to God and to each other. But when the house is destroyed, there is no place to be intimate anymore. And gevalt! Are we longing and crying to be intimate with God …On Tisha b'Av the Messiah comes. On Tisha b’Av until the Six Million you only heard the sound of the destruction of the Temple; you could not hear the footsteps of the Messiah. Today, the voice of destruction gets further and further away, the voice of the coming of the Messiah gets closer and closer. The utopian message is that the whole world is being fixed as God’s holy intimacy comes back into the world and into our lives (Aug. 3, 1992, Congregation Kehillat Jacob News).
In this reinterpretation, Tisha b'Av is the harbinger of the utopian message that intimacy with God can be regained and with it the fixing of our lives and of the whole world. This then, is a "mourning" that is filled with hopeful joy.
Thus, to answer your question, this type of Tisha b'Av is a "mourning" that is a harbinger of hopeful joy.
Which "original" tragedy are you talking about? While the destructions of the two Temples -- more than 600 years apart from each other, by the way -- are the central focus of the "peshat" of this holiday, they are not the "original" catastrophe of this date. According to the Mishna [Taanit 4.6], this was the date that God decreed that the generation of the Exodus could not enter the Land of Israel, and instead they would have to spend 40 years wandering the desert. That same Mishna associates another fast day, the 17th of Tammuz - ostensibly about the destruction of the Jerusalem city walls - with the date Moses smashed the tablets upon seeing the people worshipping the golden calf.
It seems to me that our tradition has taken the 9th of Av (and the 17th of Tammuz) not simply as reports of a single historical tragedy. If that were the case, then your question would be on target, since heaping up subsequent tragedies might obscure the "original" one. But instead, I think the tradition understands these fast days as symbols of a ruptured universe, in which the divine presence - like the people Israel, like Adam and Eve and all their children - has been driven into exile. If that's the case, then there is no single "original" tragedy. The destructions of the two Temples and all the subsequent slaughters, wars, plagues and punishments clarify the deep pattern, not obscure it.
The original meaning of Tisha B'Av has, I believe, been diminished in a few short years after the destruction of the Temples the city of Jerusalem first by the Babylonians and then by the Romans. In fact, in some ways, it is not an understatement to say that tody holiday has become meaningless. To pray for the re-establishment of a Jewish state when there is a Jewish state is superflous. And, should one say that the holiday is a prayer for the re-establishment of the Temple, I would ask, "Are you really going to fly to Israel to sacrifice a goat?" The answer is almost always "No." So Tisha B'Av must come to mean something relevant. And it does.
The holiday has come to represent all the moments of national mourning, not just the ones it is originally designed for. It is a good way for us to step back and take a liturgical look around us and see how much tikkun olam still needs to happen, how much tikkun ha-lev - repairing the hearts of those who hate us, and how much tikkun etzmainu - repair of relationships between Jews - needs to happen. That is a fundamentally new interpretation of this holiday and it is one that I subscribe to.
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