Tisha b'Av begins tomorrow night at sundown. Jewish tradition holds that five major catastrophes have fallen on this date, including the destruction of both the First and Second Temples.
The authors of the mishna (the name means "repetition" or "second" -- it is the kernel at the heart of Talmud, and was redacted around 200 C.E.) lived after the Second Temple was destroyed, and they were preoccupied with the cause of the calamity. They tell us that the First Temple fell to the Babylonians in 586 BCE because of the community's high rate of idolatry, sexual immorality and bloodshed. The second Temple fell to the Romans in 70 CE, they wrote, because of sinat chinam -- causeless hatred.
In later Talmudic sources, the rabbis offered a variety of other explanations for the Temple's fall: the community failed to keep Shabbat, no longer recited the shema with appropriate intention, treated scholars with contempt, and so on. Each of these arguments tells us something about who the sages of that era were and what mattered to them -- and it's telling that it doesn't seem to have occurred to them that the Temples fell because the Babylonian and Roman armies were simply too strong to fend off. They were looking for theological reasons for the destruction, because if it were our community's sin which brought about the destruction, then surely our teshuvah (repentance/return to God) would cause us to be raised up again. (My thanks are due to Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, who articulated these teachings in a recent e-bulletin from the Conservative Yeshiva where I studied last summer.)
My own theology differs from that of the sages of the Mishnaic era. I see the fall of the temples as the incredibly painful birth pangs of a new era. Without the temple at our tradition's heart, we evolved rabbinic Judaism: a creative -- and portable -- transformation of our paradigm for communal living, prayer, and connection with God. From the vantage point of modernity, I can see the blessing which we were able to wrest from the rubble. I wouldn't go back to what we had before. But I find value in gathering with my community once a year to mourn our old losses, and to mourn the brokenness of the world in which we still live. To dive into the reality of human suffering, and to grapple again with the question of how to give our suffering meaning.
Take note of the place where this holiday falls in our festival cycle. This is the low point of our year. From here we begin the slow climb up to the month of Elul (an opportunity to spend four weeks in spiritual preparation for the Days of Awe) and then come the big holidays of (northern hemisphere) autumn, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and Sukkot. In some ways, 9 Av is the very beginning of the road to those celebrations. We're eager for the rejoicing of the festivals we know are coming, but we can't get there without being here first. This is our day for mourning galut, exile -- not only (or maybe not at all) exile from the site of the Temple, but the existential exile of living in an imperfect and disconnected world. That's spiritual work we need to do each year before we can be ready to move into the high holiday season.
Tomorrow night at my shul we'll read from Eikha (Lamentations) and we'll read contemporary kinnot, poems of lament. Along those lines, if you're looking for appropriate reading for 9 Av, don't miss Aryeh Cohen's gorgeous and heartbreaking new contemporary Kinah; you might also find value in Rabbi Daniel Brenner's Third Temple meditation, and in Rabbi Daniel Seidenberg's Laments: A Fresh Translation of Eikhah, available as a PDF and as a DavkaWriter file. Whatever form your observance may take, I hope you find meaning in it.