Tisha B’Av: Teaching the Past to Save the Future

Tisha B’Av is a challenging holiday for me in a number of ways.

According to Jewish tradition, Tisha B’Av (“the ninth of Av”) is a day of mourning in observance of the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem and other calamities that have struck the Jewish people over the centuries. It is observed by fasting, refraining from fun activities, and adopting other practices from Jewish mourning ritual such as sitting on the ground and not greeting others in a normal way.

I’ve always been challenged by the fact that a day of mourning comes during the summer, a time for relaxing and fun activities. Especially in western Washington, when we live through months of rain only to be gifted with majestic summers, the casting aside of any day for mourning feels unfair.

Additionally, I am personally not a fan of fasting. I do not mind fasting on Yom Kippur as I am deeply invested in the day as well as focused on leading services and programs throughout the day, so the fast tends not to impact me too much physically. There is usually less to do on Tisha B’Av, and so I am more aware how the lack of food and drink makes me feel. [So to be honest, I tend not to fast on Tisha B’Av, but rather modify my eating in other ways.]

These, admittingly, are petty reasons perhaps. But I am also challenged by Tisha B’Av theologically. By romanticizing the Temple, aren’t we engaging in a difficult form of nostalgia? The Temple, in the Jewish imagination, was a place of great holiness, a place when the Jewish people and God were the closest, the focal point of spiritual energy from ancient times. Yet while the destruction was a difficult moment in Jewish history, it was that event that predicated the formation of the Judaism we observe and celebrate today. The destruction of the Temple paved the way for the replacement of a Judaism that was rooted in hierarchy and exclusion with one that is rooted in democracy and inclusion.

The tendency to rewrite the past is also seen in this week’s Torah portion of Devarim, We begin reading the fifth book of the Torah this week, Deuteronomy, which is for the most part a long speech by Moses to the Israelites prior to them entering into the land. They have wandered for forty years, and now Moses needs to prepare them for their new life both by retelling their history and reminding them of the laws.

The book begins with this first part, with Moses recounting the story of the Israelites. Though he takes liberties that interestingly put him in a better light. This is primarily true with the story of the institution of the judicial system that we first read in Exodus. [Biblical criticism of course recognizes this as two different source texts, but we can read it as one redacted literary narrative.]

In the original story in Exodus 18 , it was Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, who devises the system for a pyramid-shaped court system wherein the community is divided in the smaller sections and appointed judges hear the “lower court” cases, while only the big cases are decided by Moses. In Deuteronomy 1, Moses says,

How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering! Pick from each of your tribes candidates who are wise, discerning, and experienced, and I will appoint them as your heads.” You answered me and said, “What you propose to do is good.” So I took your tribal leaders, wise and experienced people, and appointed them heads over you: chiefs of thousands, chiefs of hundreds, chiefs of fifties, and chiefs of tens, and officials for your tribes.
Deuteronomy 1:12-15

Why does Moses do this? Perhaps it is just a shorthand way of telling the story without getting too much into details, perhaps he wants to just make himself look good. Regardless, this portion–and the impending observance of Tisha B’Av–reminds us of the importance in noting how we tell our histories, and that the telling of history is sometimes more about the present than the past.

So in the case of Tisha B’Av, what is gained by remembering an ancient event that indeed ultimately proved to have positive (albeit unintended) consequences?

The answer I believe lies in events underlying the destruction of the Temple. The ancient rabbis of the Talmud and later tradition would seemingly have a similar relationship to the events of the Temple’s destruction, for they were the beneficiaries of the removal of the priesthood and the sacrificial system that defined communal spiritual life during the days in which it stood. But they too saw that the loss needed to be acknowledged.

Their answer was to focus on the “causes” of the destruction. While ostensibly the fall came from outside conquering forces, there was less of a moral lesson in that. Rather, the rabbis looked inward, and told stories about how interpersonal ethical failings–such as ravenous hatred among groups and individuals, public shaming, and the inability to speak up for victims–set in motion a chain of events that led to the fall of the community. The rabbis, like Moses, relate the history in a particular way because that is the way their communities needed to hear it.

Acknowledging Tisha B’Av is therefore not nostalgia for a lost past but a warning for the future. Like the rabbis, we retell the story of the Temple in this way because this is how need to hear it now.

We are living at a time too when we are seeing ravenous hatred among groups and individuals, public shaming, and the inability to speak up for victims. Tisha B’Av reminds us that these forces can ultimately threaten the stability of our communities and our institutions. What was lost once, can be lost again. And by telling the stories of the past, we can prepare ourselves for a better future.

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