From the first day of the Hebrew Month of Av through the Fast of the Ninth of Av (Tisha B'Av), Jews observe various mourning practices in commemoration of the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. They refrain from eating meat, drinking wine, having parties, listening to music, and a variety of other enjoyable or celebratory activities as determined by communal custom. While they have been expanded, modified and adjusted with the passage of time, the roots of these observances are thousands of years old, and the concept of mourning for the loss of the Temple is found in the Bible itself.
This leads us to the obvious question: Jews have been carefully observing the Nine Days for thousands of years. They have scrupulously avoided parties, weddings, meat, wine, etc., consulting with their rabbis to clarify what is or is not permitted during this time. They have mourned for Jerusalem in precise accordance with Jewish Law. So why hasn't God taken note of our punctilious behavior and rebuilt the Temple already?
The answer is that our observance of the Nine Days has become yet another exemplification of the underlying problem with our observance of Jewish law in general, and it is this deeply entrenched problem that was the cause of our exile to begin with. Rather than awaken us to our distorted relationship with Jewish Law, the customs of mourning have fallen victim to the same distortion.
During the era when the Temple stood (and this seems to be true not only of the Second Temple but even of the First), the Jews observed many, if not all, of the commandments of the Torah. They were concerned about the holiness of the Sabbath and the kashruth of their food. They visited the Temple on holidays and brought sacrifices as required by the Law. On a ritual level, their conduct left little to be desired.
Yet the Prophets, most notably Isaiah and Jeremiah, castigated the Jews for their failure to adhere to the Torah - not the laws of the Torah, but its spirit and purpose. The Prophets saw that the Jews were outwardly observant, but had not internalized the principles, values and ideals that observance is supposed to instill in us. They may have consulted with Rabbis to determine the precise legal ramifications of their actions, but they showed little concern for the metaphysical, spiritual and ethical implications thereof.
For instance, Isaiah famously criticizes the Jews not merely for desecrating the Sabbath through work, but for speaking about mundane pursuits on the Sabbath day and for failing to enjoy the Sabbath to the fullest. His message was that technical observance is not enough - one must consider the ultimate purpose and meaning of the observance, the objective it is designed to achieve.
This is most beautifully exemplified in my favorite passage in Jeremiah, chapter 34, which is the Haftara for Parashat Mishpatim. (Unfortunately, it is rarely read in the synagogue, because it is usually Parashat Sheqalim, so the regular Haftara is almost always replaced with another).
Tzidqiyahu, the King of Judah, attempts to return the Jews to the observance of the Torah, and gathers them in the Temple to make a solemn covenant with them. Specifically, he has the people promise to adhere to the commandment to free slaves after six years of servitude. The assembled group makes a covenant with God and commits to abide by the law. In fact, they do go ahead and release their slaves.
There is only one problem: After setting them free, the Jews immediately chase down their slaves and recapture them!
God tells Jeremiah to commend the Jews for doing what previous generations had failed to do - freeing the slaves in accordance with the Law. However, He then informs the people that their subsequent reversal not only erased their good deed, it sealed the decree of their destruction.
The fact that they desecrated God's name, violated their solemn oath and retook their slaves was sufficient reason in God's eyes to condemn them. We must wonder - what were they thinking? Why did they go all out, commit to this vow, keep it, and then break it?
On the surface, it seems absurd, but consider this: They never violated their oath. In the minds of the Jews, they had observed their vow to the letter and had released the slaves as they were commanded. They never promised they wouldn't recapture the slaves afterward! Who said anything about not recapturing?
From the technical, legal standpoint, the Jews were totally justified in their actions. From a "halakhic" perspective, the perspective of Jewish law, they had done nothing wrong, and probably felt proud that they had acted precisely in accordance with the requirements of the Torah.
The message of the Prophet was exactly this - technical compliance with the Law is not what God wants from you. He wants devotion to the purpose of the Law and its spirit. Why did God command us to free the slaves after six years of labor? Certainly not to enact a formalistic ritual of releasing the slaves and then to recapture them!
The temporary character of servitude is a reflection of the humanity of the slave and his right to have an independent, autonomous existence in the world. Freeing the slaves demonstrates our understanding that no human being can own another human being. Every person is created in the image of God, answers only to God and is given the power of free choice by God to live his or her own life on this Earth, hopefully in the service of God.
The Jews in the story acted in what would today be considered a stereotypically "Orthodox" fashion, demonstrating a painstaking adherence to the letter of the law (think of the legalistic "selling" of hametz to a non-Jew before Passover as a contemporary instance of this approach). However, their observance of the commandment did not promote the values and ideals it was supposed to; on the contrary, it did exactly the opposite!
The "release" of slaves by the generation of Tzidqiyahu totally subverted and undermined the essential spirit of the law. Rather than serving as a genuine demonstration of the principle that man cannot permanently enslave his fellow man, the Jews transformed the "freeing of slaves" into a ritualistic legal mechanism that would permit them to hold onto their servants forever with impunity!
When observance of the Law is perverted from a vehicle of true philosophical and ethical ideas into a method of working around or even uprooting and eliminating those ideas, there is no hope for Torah Judaism anymore. The people's whole orientation to God's Law is fundamentally distorted and must be rebuilt from the ground up - hence the harsh decree of wanton destruction, famine and exile from the Land of Israel pronounced by Jeremiah in Chapter 34.
In order to really appreciate the Nine Days and Tisha B'Av, we must see the lesson of Jeremiah in ourselves...We must identify the ritualizing of our observance, not only the absence of spirit, direction and purpose in our conduct but the literal replacement of of lofty ideals and values with dry, technical, behavioristic formulas.
Jewish law and custom is eternally binding, and there is no question that we are obligated to keep all of the practices of mourning that our Prophets and Sages deemed obligatory during this time of the year. Nevertheless, as long as we are more concerned with the minutiae of the legal requirements of the Nine Days than we are with the absence of the Temple and what that means about the spiritual state of our nation, this indicates that the customs we work so hard to observe have failed to achieve their aim. In fact, it means that they have become yet another symptom of the core problem that is responsible for our lengthy dispersion across the globe.