The Two-Way Street | Tisha B’Av

Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky
on August 6, 2019

“Our rabbis taught that all who mourn for Jerusalem will merit to behold her joy”
(B. Taanit 30b)

I first stepped foot in Jerusalem on Tisha B’Av in 1967. I was a pilgrim on the Ramah Israel Seminar, and they wisely planned the summer’s itinerary so that our final week would be spent in the Holy City. We stayed in Katamon and, although I cannot recall it 52 years later, we probably read the book of Lamentations that evening while sitting on the floor of the Israel Goldstein Youth Village. What I do remember clearly was the next day, when we — and apparently every other Jew in the world — converged on the Wailing Wall. The rabbinic teaching above was on everyone’s lips, as it should have been: all who mourned for Jerusalem were meriting to behold her joy! Even as we stepped through the urine-soaked rubble (there was no plaza back then — men and women together — no mechitzah either) we all rejoiced, not mourned, for Jerusalem reunited!

What did they say? Over and over I heard people vow that never again would Jerusalem be divided by barbed wire or any other kind of wall. Jerusalem would be a home for all peoples, (paraphrasing Isaiah 56). We wandered through Arab Silwan, grinning at the blue-trimmed doors. We toured Ammunition Hill, soon to be a tiny Jewish enclave. Tisha B’Av in 1967 was a carnival of proto-messianic fervor.

Although we are not prophets nor the sons of prophets, there were yet voices warning us that glass goblets must be smashed in the midst of our celebration. David Ben-Gurion played Cassandra, warning Israel not to be too puffed up with militaristic hubris — that the captured territories would be the downfall of the democratic state. Others, ruing the unseemly celebrations, recalled that once many centuries ago, when Tisha B’Av fell on a Shabbat, no less than Rebbi Yehuda HaNasi himself demurred from celebrating it on Sunday (B. Talmud, Megilla 5b).

This year, Tisha B’Av again falls on Shabbat, and the fast is pushed off to Saturday night/ Sunday August 10-11. Should we follow Rebbi’s custom and no longer fast? After all, Jerusalem is still united 52 years after its 1967 unification. It is the eternal capital of Israel. The US embassy is there now. There is no wall dividing the city any longer . . . er, well, there actually is such a wall. The city is divided and Jerusalem is more and more Jewish, and less and less a place for all of God’s people. The US embassy is nothing more than a monument to the ever-diminishing possibilities of peace with our Palestinian neighbors.

What’s a Jew to do? I think this should be a year of profound mourning for Jerusalem. Although we build it up more and more every day, its complexion has changed profoundly. No longer is the call of the muezzin the background soundtrack to our daily round. No more is the sweet-savor of the incense of many churches perfuming the air. Men and women are forcibly separated at the Wall. And another wall divides the city’s inhabitants from one another.

This year, I mourn for Jerusalem even on a Tisha B’Av that has been deferred to Sunday. It is my hope, still, that all who mourn for Jerusalem will someday merit to behold her joy.

Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky, Ph.D., serves as Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he is the Louis Stein Director of the Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies, focused on public policy. He also is director of the Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue at JTS.

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