The saddest day in the Jewish year is approaching: Tisha b'Av begins Saturday night at sundown and lasts until nightfall on Sunday. The day commemorates the destruction of the First Temple in 587 B.C.E., and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., and a host of other tragedies besides.
For many, the mourning process begins with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz, three weeks prior, which commemorates the breaching of Jerusalem's city walls as the precursor to the Temple's destruction. The customs of mourning intensify as 9 Av draws nearer. (During the Nine Days leading up to the holiday, many Jews refrain from any activity which would give cause to say the shehecheyanu.) And then on the day itself, it is traditional to eschew everything which brings pleasure -- food, wine, sex, studying Torah (except for depressing bits like Job and Lamentations) -- as we mourn the destruction of the Temple and our condition of exile from God.
Some communities place more emphasis on the first of those; others, on the second. It's a difference that matters tremendously to me.
I understand the need to mourn the destruction of the Temple; it was where
and how a previous incarnation of the Jewish people made contact with
our Source. But I've
written before about how I believe that the fall of
the Temple, and the concomitant Diaspora, carried Judaism forward and enabled
my tradition to evolve in ways I find beautiful, meaningful, and necessary. I don't actually want the Temple back -- I'm not interested in the literalist interpretation which expects a return to Biblical practices at the end of days. (I said as much
My theology is built on the assumption that genuine and powerful connection with God is possible from anywhere, not just the Temple Mount, so my observance of Tisha b'Av grieves for the condition of exile from God which we allow to permeate our days. Every tragedy I read about in the news, every murder and rape and famine which we could have prevented but did not, distances us from unity with the All. The bombings sixty years ago at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, commemorated so close to Tisha b'Av, distance us from unity with the All. What continues to unfold in Sudan distances us from unity with the All. And that distance is the real exile which this holiday obligates us to notice.
For some, this perspective might be insufficiently focused on Jerusalem (elf's excellent post about Tisha b'Av this year raises that concern, and it's a valid criticism), but for me this is the way in to the holiday. I see Tisha b'Av as an opportunity to cry out, as Alicia Ostriker does in this poem, asking the aspect of God which follows us into exile to guide us into a new relational paradigm.
The blessing hidden in the Temple's destruction was the shift from reaching God through Temple sacrifice (which could only happen in one place, in very specific ways) to reaching God through prayer (which can happen anywhere, at any time). In these post-Temple days, distance from God is something we can bridge ourselves if we choose to. And that's what I think Tisha b'Av calls us to acknowledge and take responsibility for.
Jewish tradition holds that the messiah will be born on 9 Av: that the day of our greatest sorrow holds the kernel of our redemption. It is incumbent upon us to effect that transformation from mourning to rejoicing, from broken world of galut (exile) to healed world of geulah (redemption). Maybe that requires a shift in consciousness; maybe it requires us to shatter our own interpersonal walls; maybe it requires the courage to speak out against wrongdoing. But one way or another, this is work that we ourselves must do. In the Jewish paradigm to which I subscribe, it is our responsibility to heed the call of the prophets -- to love our fellow beings as we love ourselves -- and to bring about the messianic age with the work of our own hands and hearts.
An observance of Tisha b'Av which focuses only on remembering our collective suffering, without taking that remembrance as a call to change, is incomplete. The day of most powerful grief in the Jewish calendar is not just about eschewing leather and sitting on low mourners' stools. It's about opening our eyes to the suffering of the broken world, and recommitting ourselves to doing something to change it. God acts in the world through us, and if we don't work to heal what's broken, all God can do is weep. Today the entire world has the capacity to be our Temple, a holy place where God's presence is made manifest with song and rejoicing, and when we allow the world to remain ruptured by hatred, we are complicit in the continuing destruction which Tisha b'Av reminds us to mourn.