The following is a letter I wrote to my congregation in anticipation of Tisha B'av this coming Sunday. I thought I would share it with the readership of this blog as well:
As you all know, Tisha B’av will be observed this year beginning Saturday evening at sunset and concluding Sunday night. Of all the dates marked on the Jewish calendar, Tisha B’av is certainly the most bitter and painful, as it commemorates all of the tragedies that have befallen our people over the past 3000 years. We mourn and fast on Tisha B’av each year to recall the horrific persecution and unspeakable suffering that we have endured since we were first exiled from the in Biblical times.
To be as direct and to the point as possible, I am asking you to fast on Tisha B’av this year.
If you cannot fast for health reasons, please make an effort to take the day seriously. Join us for the prayers in the evening, morning and afternoon. R ead Tisha B’av related materials in whatever language you understand.
Tisha B’av is one of the most important days on the Jewish calendar. The Rabbis compare the stringency of the Ninth of A v to the stringency of Yom Kippur. We are taught that anyone who keeps Tisha B’av properly will merit to see the ultimate redemption, and that, in fact, the observance of Tisha B’av is itself the first step toward that redemption.
I have always felt that, more than any other holiday, Tisha B’av observance expresses genuine commitment to Jewish tradition and nationhood. It is not difficult to entice people to participate in festivities and celebrations. It is not even too hard to convince people to fast on Yom Kippur with the promise that their sins will be atoned for thereby.
But it is quite challenging to try and persuade modern Jews to weep for the destruction of the Temple , to abstain from eating, drinking and enjoying themselves for twenty-five hours and take time to reflect upon the darkest chapters of Jewish history. To do this, you must feel a profound connection to your Jewish past, present and future. You must be willing to be a Jew through thick and thin, during good times and bad times, on days of joy and on days of mourning.
The story is told that Napoleon Bonaparte was walking through the streets of Paris one Tisha B' A v night.
As his entourage passed a synagogue he heard wailing and crying coming from within; he sent an aide to inquire as to what had happened.
The aide returned and told Napoleon that the Jews were in mourning over the loss of their Temple .
Napoleon was indignant! "How come I wasn't informed? When did this happen? Which Temple ?"
The aide responded, "They lost their on this date 1,700 years ago."
Napoleon stood in silence and then said, "Certainly a people which has mourned the loss of their Temple for so long will survive to see it rebuilt!"
Napoleon’s insight resonates powerfully with a generation that has witnessed the rebirth of Israel and its transformation from an arid and abandoned desert into a vivaciously blossoming Jewish homeland. Granted, much spiritual work is left to be done, but there is no question that the ancient memories kept alive by Tisha B’av fueled the flames of passion that inspired the pioneers who established the Modern state of Israel.
Had the Jewish people lacked a keen sense of their tragic and painful history, had they not heard the piercing cries of desperation, humiliation and loss ringing eternally in their ears, had they not smelled the ashes of charred human remains wafting up from the destruction of the Jewish communities of Europe in the aftermath of World War II, had they not felt the weight of centuries of constant exile, expulsion and persecution upon their hearts, then we would not be where we are today as a nation. Their awareness of the past paved the way to a brighter future for us all.
Unfortunately, quite the opposite attitude seems to be prevalent in our times. Most of us don’t want to think about the terrible events of the recent past – the expulsion of Jews from Arab Lands, the Holocaust, or the Soviet persecutions – let alone those of the distant past.
We don’t want to hear about Hamas and Hizbollah threatening us anymore.
We don’t want to read about suicide bombers spilling the blood of innocent children in pizza shops anymore.
We don’t want to picture vicious terrorists ambushing the vehicles of young parents whose only crime was trying to take Jewish kids to school.
We don’t want to imagine ruthless killers murdering pregnant mothers whose only crime was trying to bring Jewish children into the world.
Indeed, we would prefer to downplay the significance of the dangerous and inflammatory anti-Semitic rhetoric that is rearing its ugly head and spreading quickly throughout Europe and the Middle East as we speak. In this sense we are no different than our ancestors in Biblical and Modern Times who chose to ignore the lessons of history and were thus doomed to repeat it.
So, this year on Tisha B’av, let us abstain from eating and drinking in memory of our fellow Jews – men, women and little children – who were starved to death at the hands of wicked persecutors. It is well known that the Nazis, who deprived their victims in the concentration camps of even the most minimal luxuries, would offer them a sumptuous meal on Tisha B’av every year, just to mock them. In recognition of their heroism in not partaking of those meals, please avoid food and drink on Tisha B’av.
This Tisha B’av, let us refrain from washing our bodies or applying creams and oils to our skin. Who can forget how our persecutors were so careful about their own hygiene and cleanliness while they forced us to live in filth and squalor, transporting us in cattle cars filled with excrement and denying us the most basic human dignity? How can we pamper ourselves when we think of how our innocent brethren were treated?
This Tisha B’av, let us avoid wearing leather shoes to remind ourselves of the long marches that our barely clothed, emaciated, barefoot and shivering brothers and sisters were forced to make through snow and ice in the dead of winter. Feeling the ground under our feet helps us recall just how many comforts we take for granted today.
Observing the restrictions of Tisha B’av brings the deprivation and suffering endured by our brethren into clear relief for us. Over the centuries, our ancestors went through hell on Earth in Israel , Spain , Greece, Portugal , England , France , Morocco, Iraq , Iran , Egypt , Germany , and countless other places. For them, there was no telling when the suffering would end. There was no telling when it might intensify. There was no choice whether or not to be subjected to it.
We, on the other hand, are a generation accustomed to privilege, luxury and comfort. We “choose” whether or not to observe Tisha B’av properly. But don’t we have a moral duty to recognize and mourn the losses our predecessors suffered?
Is it asking too much for us to set aside one day to fast and reflect upon the sacrifices they made and the pain they experienced for the sake of their Judaism?
Does the burden we bear for one day even come close to the ones they were forced to carry for their entire lifetimes?
Most importantly, we must recognize that it is through our acknowledgment of the horrors of our past that we gain a clearer perspective on our future. Mourning the destruction of our Temple and the constant persecutions directed against our communities should remind us of our ultimate priorities in life. It should pull us away from our obsession with imitating or winning the favor of our Gentile neighbors. It should move us to return to God and rededicate ourselves to His service. It should make us pray ever more fervently and work ever more intensively to perfect ourselves and our world.
This year, allow the message of Tisha B’av to make its way into your heart. Open your mind to the possibility of more Torah study and mitzvah performance. Don’t allow the sacrifices made by generations of Jews – men and women, mothers and fathers, adults and children, rabbis and laypersons – to be forgotten. Don’t allow their tears to have been in vain.
It is up to all of us to make sure that the memories of our dark history are perpetuated and that we internalize the lessons these memories are supposed to teach us.
Please join me in mourning for our glorious Temple , for our beautiful Torah, for the trampled dignity of our rabbis and elders and for the precious breath that was stolen from the lungs of our little babies. Don’t let them be overlooked or disregarded. Don’t allow them to be called irrelevant or obsolete.
I hope to see you on Saturday Night at 9:30PM for the Tisha B’av service, and then again on Sunday at 8:30 A M for Shaharit. I strongly encourage you to attend the Holocaust Museum Tour with us at 11:30 A M on Sunday after morning services.
I will also be delivering a class entitled “Is it Possible to Make Sense out of All of our Suffering?”, Sunday afternoon at 6:45PM at Magen David Sephardic Congregation, followed by Minha at 7:30PM.
May this Tisha B’av be a source of genuine intellectual and spiritual growth for us all, so that we can see the words of the prophet Zechariah fulfilled, “The fast of the Fourth Month (Tammuz) and the Fast of the Fifth ( A v) and the Fast of the Seventh (Tishrei) and the Fast of the Tenth(Tevet) shall be for the house of Judah for joy, gladness and cheerful feasts.” A men.