Having grown up in a secular Jewish home, I was an adult before I learned about the tragedies ascribed to the 9th of Av that befell Israel over millennia. After years of study, I realized that if we did not consign so many disastrous Jewish historical events to this one day, we’d be chanting Avinu Malkeinu and fasting weekly.
The first Tisha b’Av calamity is traditionally ascribed to the Biblical era, when the Israelites cried after hearing the report of the scouts Moses had tasked with exploring Canaan before the Israelites entered it. Out of fear, the scouts falsely reported, “We are unable to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we” (Numbers 13:31).
The next cataclysms were the destruction of the First and Second Temples, destruction of the city of Betar following the crushing of the Bar Kochba rebellion, the beginning of the Crusades and innumerable expulsions from many countries over centuries. As recently as 1994 the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires was bombed on the 9th of Av.
As for the First Temple, the Talmud states that it was obliterated because the Israelites did not obey God’s laws. They continued to worship idols among other infractions. The ruination of the Second Temple is blamed on ‘sinat chinam’ — baseless hatred.
This concept is explored in this well-known Talmudic story (Gittin 54b-55a): A wealthy Jew threw a lavish party in Jerusalem. His enemy, Bar Kamtza, was erroneously invited. The host, enraged by Bar Kamtza’s presence, threw him out. Bar Kamtza, infuriated by the public humiliation, sought revenge against all the Jews of Jerusalem. He lied to the Roman emperor, claiming that the Jews were planning a rebellion. The emperor, wishing to verify the claim, gave Bar Kamtza a kosher animal for a temple sacrifice on his behalf. Bar Kamtza, however, deliberately blemished it, rendering it unfit. A series of events transpired which eventually led to the Romans accusing the Jews of rebelling. The Romans then had an excuse to destroy Jerusalem.
Why this tale of hostility, petty revenge and destruction in the Talmud, and how is it relevant to us today?
As we approach Tisha b’Av 5780, it is disheartening to note that we have not progressed far from the Biblical and Talmudic eras. Baseless hatred and fear among Jews, as well as between Israeli Jews and Palestinians — now rampant — has simmered for decades. Just as our character’s antipathy in the Talmud narrative was the basis for Israel’s annihilation, the annexation proposals of the current Israeli leadership — not to mention their intransigence regarding a potential state for the Palestinians, the denial of basic rights and attempting to usurp land — are laying the groundwork for Israel’s demise.
The many rituals of this day, designed specifically to recall historical national decimation including fasting, praying and recitation of Lamentations, also remind us of our hubris, vulnerability and, most importantly, our ability to survive. If we can take to heart the penitential nature of this commemorative holiday to learn from the lessons of the past rather than repeating our historical actions, we will recognize that Israel cannot long exist when so many of its inhabitants and its immediate neighbors are subjugated.
Hear, O Israel! Voices of the present (J Street), and the past (rabbinical admonitions). Let us move forward in hope and with action at the onset of this season of return to avoid adding another debacle to the long list that occurred on the 9th of Av.
Let us work intensely and persistently with J Street toward abolishing hatred and offering human rights; work toward a time in the near future when Palestinians and Israelis will be reconciled; when observance of Tisha b’Av will no longer be required because our Holy Land is at peace within and with its neighbors.
Rabbi Judith B. Edelstein, D. Min., BCC, received Rabbinic Ordination from The Academy for Jewish Religion in 1997. She has served as a congregational rabbi and as a chaplain. Currently she teaches, counsels, officiates at life cycle events, and is a Mussar trainer. She lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with her husband, who is an ardent JStreet supporter.