Sermon – What are we really mourning on Tisha B’Av?

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 29 July 2011

Mi-she-nichnas Av, m’ma’atin b’simchah From the time that Av enters, we reduce in joy.

The phrase is found in the Mishnah, the compilation of Jewish legal traditions from about 200 CE, and instructs us that in the coming week – in fact as we proclaimed in our Torah service, from Sunday night/Monday which is Rosh Chodesh Av – we are to reduce the amount of happiness and celebration in our lives.  As we enter Av, we enter the immediate run up to what it the primary day of mourning in the Jewish calendar – the Ninth of Av, when we commemorate a number of ancient tragedies that befell our ancestors.  So sad is it that not only do we mourn and fast on that day, but its ripples go out into the calendar.  The nine days is a period in which many Jews do not hold celebrations, do not shave, do not listen to music, do not eat meat or drink wine, perhaps do not even bathe, except on Shabbat.  Our Haftarah this morning, in common with those of last week and next, was a haftarah of rebuke to alert us mentally to the forthcoming fast.  The haftarot following the ninth of Av are haftarot of comfort, designed to bring us gently out of our mourning.

And yet, as we approach this day on which Jews around the world are gripped with sadness, I have to make a confession.  There is a part of me that thinks of this day of mourning, of Tisha B’Av, as actually being one of the most positive days in the whole of Jewish history.

Why might I say such a heretical thing?  Let’s take a step back and understand what we are really mourning on Tisha B’Av.

Tisha B’Av has become a day of general commemoration – it has hoovered up other sorrows over time – but at its heart is mourning for the destruction of the two Temples – in 586 BCE and 70 CE by the Babylonians and Romans respectively.  Its primary ritual is the reading of Eichah – the Book of Lamentations – composed in the midst of the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.

Now I do not in any way want to downplay the horror of the sackings of Jerusalem.  These were events of a horror that, until the twentieth century, was unparalleled in Jewish history.  There is a very real sorrow to Tisha B’Av that comes from the nature of the events it commemorates – not dissimilar to the role that Yom HaShoah now plays for us.  This idea is powerfully expressed in a sermon by the Orthodox Rabbi Norman Lamm.  He wrote that “Tisha B’Av does not mean remembering, it means reliving… that in every generation, every Jew must feel as if he himself lived in Jerusalem as it was being destroyed… as if he himself was one of the faithful onlookers who wept endless tears as they watched the Beit HaMikdash go up in flames, desecrated by the inhuman legions of Rome, and then threw themselves bodily into those very same flames.  Every Jew must feel as if he personally were uprooted… and sent off as an exile to some strange country, far far from home”.  This historical aspect of the day has great resonance for me – What I am doing on Tisha B’av is to mourn the sufferings of our ancestors.  On this Tisha B’Av we will follow our service with a short study session in which we will look at rabbinic accounts of the horror of Roman persecution.

Yet the mourning of Tisha B’Av is not only historical and personal but also theological, and here it gets more complex.  In theory, we are mourning a moment in the relationship between God and Israel.  Rome, and especially Babylon 650 years previously, were understood as being the instruments of divine will.  The destruction was not merely painful but our just desserts.  When we mark Tisha B’Av, we are marking a moment of divine punishment of Israel – that is the complex message of Eichah, and of the haftarot we read in this period.  And that theology is not my theology. I do not mourn because God punishes.

And it gets even more complex when we think about the focal point of the mourning – the Temple itself.  This was not only a symbolically important building, it was not only a source of great pain – physical and metaphorical – that it was destroyed.  The Temple was the place in which, to the ancient Israelite mind, communication with God took place.  The destruction of the Temples was the removal of the ability to communicate adequately with God.  The Temple represented the pinnacle of human closeness to God.

The Talmud tells a story that when the first Temple was destroyed, groups of young priests gathered with the keys to the Sanctuary in their hands. They ascended a roof and declared: “Ruler of the World! Since we have not merited to be trustworthy custodians, let the keys be given back to You.” They then threw the keys toward Heaven. Something like a hand emerged and received them, and the priests threw themselves into the fire.

Those were not just keys to a building, but the key to the human relationship with God.

But this I do not believe.  I do not mourn for the loss of the Temple. In fact, theologically, spiritually, I would argue that the destruction of the Temples was probably the most important thing to happen to Judaism in our history.  It completely changed the model of our religious life – for the better.  Judaism changed…  From a model in which God is the preserve of one location – the Temple in Jerusalem; one caste – the hereditary priesthood; a model in which communication with God is through a medium that was narrow, that did not require one’s whole self, and which ultimately could not have survived – sacrifice. From this to a different Judaism: one in which all can be in relationship with God irrespective of where we are or who we are; in which the relationship is expressed not through killing of animals or giving of crops, but through prayer and through the way in which we live our lives.

It is beyond me that in parts of the Jewish world the Temple is still considered to be the pinnacle of the human relationship with God. I do not understand that one theme of Tisha B’Av in parts of the Jewish world is a hope that in mourning properly over Jerusalem, this may somehow facilitate the reward of its rebuilding.  The aspiration for return to Temple is one of the things that I find most alienating about the Orthodox version of the Jewish liturgy – and alas that includes the, theoretically modern, Masorti liturgy – that it cannot recognise the positive nature of this change, but instead contains prayers for the rebuilding of the Temple.  If prayer is the expression of the ultimate in human wants and needs then such a sentiment has no place in a modern liturgy.

For the move from Temple was a good thing.  Without the events of 586 BCE and 70 CE, it may not have taken place.  And without it, Judaism would be very different – if it survived at all.

So Tisha B’Av, despite the very real mourning, the very real sense of pain it conjures up, is also the anniversary of something extraordinarily positive.  The next few days are a time in our calendar to reduce in joy.  But we need to be careful about what we are mourning for.  What I will be mourning is suffering – the destruction that our ancestors experienced at one of the most terrifying moments in our history.  Their pain was exacerbated by their understanding of what was going on – their sense of punishment and theological loss. But what I will not be doing is mourning for the loss of the Temple.  On Tisha B’Av there is a part of me that knows that this is also the anniversary of one of the greatest developments in our history.

Mi-she-nichnas Av, m’ma’atin b’simchah From the time that the month of Av begins, we reduce in joy. That this positive change came at a personal price is a source of overwhelming sadness,

But the change itself – that ought only to be celebrated – b’simcha – with joy.