Dvar Torah: The Real Meaning of Tisha B’Av

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 31 July 2015

This is a funny period in the Jewish year.

It is less than a week since we marked the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem with the fast of Tisha B’Av.   We are now coming out of that traditional mourning period, but the echo of mourning will – in our ritual at least – be with us for weeks to come.

Today is Shabbat Nachamu – the Shabbat of Comfort.  We will read tomorrow the first of seven special readings of consolation that take us from Tisha B’Av all the way up to Rosh Hashanah.

So something very significant is going on.  And yet, it’s hard to know exactly what to do with it.

This is largely because it doesn’t have what you might call in Aramaic – the language of the Talmud – a ‘shma minah’ – a deduction, a learning, a take away – a something you are supposed to draw from the text about how you are supposed to be.

For almost every other part of the Jewish Year there is a take-away – something that moves and changes us.  But at Tisha B’Av, we don’t have that same sense of self-improvement, so what we are left with is a strange sense of self-indulgence.

But there is a shma minah
It’s there in a question that is asked throughout our literature – why did the terrible things of Tisha B’Av happen?
It is a question that, because it is so theologically alien, we often tend to ignore.  But the real underlying question is a good one – what could be so bad in human behaviour that it could even cause God to destroy God’s own temple.  What do we human beings do, that is so awful that y it we can destroy ourselves and that which is precious to us?

Asked like that it makes more sense.

Most often, when we ask this question of this period, the answer we alight on is one from the Jerusalem Talmud.  The Temples were destroyed, it tells us, because of sinat chinam – causeless hatred.  And so the shma minah from Tisha B’Av is that we should affirm to remove this from our lives.  Those of us who have been horrified by what we’ve seen once again in Israel over the last few days wish that all our co-religionists could have taken this injunction to heart.

This was not the only answer the sages gave – but one of many.
The Babylonian Talmud teaches something very odd indeed.  In the name of Rav Yochanan we read that Jerusalem was destroyed because the people there ruled according to Torah.
This seems a strange comment.  The Temples were destroyed because the people kept Torah?
The Talmud clarifies: the people there enacted Torah Law but never went beyond the letter of the law.

This explanation contains a wonderful insight about religion – that obedience to text, to precepts, to law – is not sufficient.  One can be very religious and this not be not enough.  You can keep kashrut and be greedy, keep niddah and be unethical in your personal interactions.
We have to go beyond the law in our lives.

It is an idea also expressed in this week’s Torah portion, where in among the legal detail we read – v’asseetah ha-yasher v’ha-tov b’einei Adonai: You shall do the right and the good in the eyes of God.

It is not enough to be legal – we have to be ethical as well.  We have to be able to be proud of what we do b’einei Adonai.

This is why we are so keen that this community not be inward looking only, but engaged with the world around.
Why we are delighted to welcome politics and politicians into our community, as we are delighted this evening to welcome Dame Tessa Jowell here as a guest of Laura Marks.

It is why we work to build a community which welcomes and enables rather than using the letter of the law to exclude people from Jewish life.

It is why social justice, equality, doing the right and the good – are at the heart of our communal life – alongside worship, ritual and study.

As Rav Yochanan said, Jerusalem was destroyed because the people there kept Torah – not enough.
The shma mina of the period is this:
May we strive not only to keep Torah but la’asot ha-yasher v’ha-tov b’einei Adonai: Always to do the right and the good.