Mourning Our Downfalls, Brought About Through Word and Deed

The observance of Tisha B’Av has always seemed so spiritually remote. Tucked into the middle of summer, it is a day in which we are meant to turn our attention to mourning the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem. For one, it is hard to take on a air of communal mourning when the weather is so beautiful outside (petty, I know), and two, our contemporary Jewish lives feel so far away from the ancient practice represented by the Temples.

These days, however, it seems like I am in a constant state of mourning. Just this past week we have seen two more mass shootings, both new demonstrations of the disregard for the sanctity of human life, and one cloaked in white supremacy, specifically targeting the Latinx community in El Paso. This week we saw immigration raids in the South that separated children from their parents, and we saw more headline news of the decline of our climate.

Tisha B’Av, which we observe beginning this Saturday night, then seems to be just one day of communal mourning among many. But like holy days in general, the meaning behind the day is not exclusive to that one 24-hour period, but allows us to spiritually focus on themes that will continue to resonate throughout the year.

For Tisha B’Av is not just about mourning for ancient buildings, but mourning for the destruction of our communal norms and institutions. The Temples represented the center of Jewish society at ancient times, both religiously and civically, and so their fall at the hands of outside invaders had a devastating effect on the community at the time. And this is an idea that resonates.

And while historically the Temples fell at the hands of external forces–The First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the Second by the Romans in 70 CE–common lore about these events points to internal factors that contributed to their downfall. Midrashim (commentaries) from the years following the destruction of the Second Temple point to internal ethical failings as the true source of the society’s collapse.

Specifically, the ancient commentaries point to the persistence of sinat hinam (“wanton hatred” or “baseless hatred”) as what ultimately brought down the Temples. We read in the Talmud (Yoma 9b):

Due to what reason was the First Temple destroyed? It was destroyed due to the fact that there were three matters that existed in the First Temple: Idol worship, forbidden sexual relations, and bloodshed. However, considering that the people during the Second Temple period were engaged in Torah study, observance of mitzvot, and acts of kindness, and that they did not perform the sinful acts that were performed in the First Temple, why was the Second Temple destroyed? It was destroyed due to the fact that there was wanton hatred during that period.…

In other words, while the Rabbis in the Talmud point to specific sinful acts that led to the destruction of the First Temple–i.e., the destruction as punishment for sin–it was this baseless hatred that led to the fall of the Second. But both because perhaps of the difficult theology contained in that first statement, and not wanting to absolve a whole generation of ethical lapses, the Talmud then goes on to ask:

And in the First Temple era was there really no baseless hatred? Isn’t it written: “Cry and wail, son of humanity, for this will befall my people, this will befall all the princes of Israel: They will be cast before the sword together with my people, therefore strike the thigh” (Ezekiel 21:17)? Rabbi Eliezer interpreted this verse and said: These are people who eat and drink with each other, and stab each other with verbal barbs. Apparently, even those who were close were filled with hatred toward one another.

Here then is the assertion that baseless hatred had always been a problem, and a definition of what it means: people who are ostensibly friendly with one another but attack each other verbally. Or those who do one thing and say another. Also contained in this teaching is the idea that words can be destructive in and of themselves.

The Talmud goes on to offer another interpretation:

That behavior was found only among the princes of Israel, as it is written: “Cry and wail, son of human, for this will befall my people”; and it was taught: “Cry and wail, son of human, for this will befall my people”; one might have thought that this unsavory trait was common to all. Therefore, the verse states: “This will befall all the princes of Israel.” It was only the leaders of the nation who harbored baseless hatred for each other; the people of the nation as a whole did not hate one another.

In this reading of the situation and the biblical verse, it was specifically the leaders of the community who harbored hatred, thus bringing down everyone.

These texts from the Talmud are meant to be homiletic; they are not presenting historical fact. And yet we can take from these an ancient wisdom that resonates today: expressions of hatred, especially from our leaders, can bring about the downfall of our society.

And this is what we see: when asylum seekers are labeled an “invasion,” when efforts to curb gun violence are labeled an assault on individual liberty, when climate science is denied, when individuals are belittled and insulted publicly, when lies abound: these are all examples of how language matters, how the ideas and expressions of our leaders can turn in to real violence and the disregard for the humanity of each individual.

It is indeed a time of mourning. Not only for the ancient Temples, and not only for the individual lives lost this past week, but for the challenges to our civil discourse, our common humanity, that is now commonplace in our society. Sinat hinam is not just of the past, but of the present.

With the fall of the Temples arose a new form of Judaism, a renewal of spiritual life that persists to this day. It is our prayer on this Tisha B’Av that just as we are brought low in our day, so too may we rise to a new height of compassion, justice, and mutual concern in the days to come.

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