Why Commemorate Tisha B’Av?

A man once told his rabbi that he was not interested in practicing Judaism because most of the rituals seemed so medieval. The rabbi replied, “I think you have it wrong…we’re not medieval. We’re much older than that!”

As you might expect, I see the relevance of Jewish practice for the times in which we live. But it’s not lost on me that many of our practices are quiet ancient, and it can be hard to demonstrate the relevance of some of our rituals and customs. It can be difficult to explain to some people that we do something today because of an event that transpired 2,000-3,000 years ago. This is especially true for the fast days we observe throughout the year (other than Yom Kippur). Tisha B’Av, or the 9th day of Av, is one such day. It is largely observed by those who have a strong Jewish background and knowledge of Jewish holidays. And since it comes in the middle of the summer, a time when many people are on vacation, it doesn’t draw a lot of attention.

First, a little background. Tisha B’Av is considered to be a solemn day on the Jewish calendar which commemorates the destruction of both the first and second Temples that stood in Jerusalem (the Western Wall, or Kotel, a Jewish site recognized around the world, remains from what once was the Second Temple). In the year 63 BCE, the Romans occupied Judea (a sovereign Jewish state run by the Hasmoneans, descendants of the Maccabees), and the Jews rebelled against Rome about 120 years later, in 67 CE. A 3-year guerilla war ensued, which the Jews lost in a big way. The Romans breached the walls of the Temple on the 17th of Tammuz in the year 70 CE (also a fast day on the Jewish calendar) and burned the Temple to the ground on the 9th of Av (three weeks later). To this day, the three weeks from 17 Tammuz to 9 Av are observed as a solemn time period on the Jewish calendar, during which traditional Jews do not hold weddings or other celebrations. During the first nine days of the month of Av, the solemnity increases, and traditional Jews do not eat meat (except on Shabbat), shave or cut their hair, or hold festive celebrations (this year, the month of Av and the “Nine Days” begin on Friday, July 17). A small group of Jews escaped to Masada, a winter fortress built in the Judean desert by Herod, the Jewish governor of Judea, and remained there for three years.   The Romans encamped at the foot of the plateau (the remains of their encampments are visible today), and finally overran Masada in 73 CE, only to find that the Jews living there had committed suicide rather than be taken as prisoners by the Romans. Tradition holds that the First Temple was also destroyed on the 9th of Av, some 600 years earlier. Tisha B’Av is observed with a 24-hour fast and the reading of the Book of Eicha (Lamentations) at night and again in the morning.

The history may be fascinating, but the question of the relevance of Tisha B’Av remains for some. Should we really fast today because the Romans destroyed the Temple 2,000 years ago? Do we really feel this is a cause for solemn, mournful behavior? Those questions have been asked by quite a few people, and not only in our time. Even the Talmudic sages sought reasons and explanations for why Tisha B’Av should be observed (though the events it recalls were far more real for them than for us). They wrote Midrashim that suggest that gratuitous hatred and lack of national unity were reasons that the Temple was destroyed, and imploring us to value positive and supportive relationships between individuals and communities and to see the importance of unity among Jewish people everywhere despite cultural and religious differences between us.

To those reasons I would add that Tisha B’Av teaches us that gratuitous violence never results in anything positive and, to the contrary, brings out the worst in us. Yigal Amir, the lunatic who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin more than 20 years ago, thought that an act of violence would make Israel better and stronger, yet he was wrong. True, sometimes we must use violence to achieve a noble end, as in a war waged to bring an end to suffering and to stop further destruction. But Tisha B’Av serves, to this day, as a reminder that never in history did violence for its own sake, for the purpose of conquest and domination, bring about a virtuous end.

So I invite you to participate in commemorating Tisha B’Av this year on Saturday evening, July 25 and Sunday, July 26 (click here for details…and it’s worth knowing that this year the 9th of Av is observed on the 10th of Av because the 9th falls on Shabbat and the only fast day that overrides Shabbat is Yom Kippur). Come to hear the haunting melody of the Book of Eicha…come to study and learn with other members of our community…come to stress the importance of Jewish peoplehood…and come to affirm that violence should never, ever be glorified or exalted.

What’s in a Name?

By all accounts, the war in Gaza was gruesome and tragic. One of the sad aspects of war, any war, is that it dehumanizes both combatants and victims. It causes people to behave in ways that are uncivilized. In modern warfare, because of the use of the skies for weapons, combatants most often do not know or see the victims of battle. Casualties are usually reported as numbers, not as human beings. I’ve been sadly struck by the way in which the human toll of war has been reported as a statistic. I am saddened by the huge losses on the Palestinian side of the conflict. Each of the people killed was a human being, created in the image of God. As a Jew and a Zionist, my heart aches for the Israelis who were killed in Gaza and Israel. I’m troubled by the lumping together of the soldiers who fell in battle into a group statistic, one that has been compared to losses in other wars. I’m troubled because each of those soldiers was a human being, a vital person pulsing with life and potential. Each of those soldiers left behind family and friends, hopes and dreams, and each of them would surely have made meaningful contributions to Israeli and human society. They are more than statistics, more than a footnote to an ugly war.

In this week’s parasha, we again read the Ten Commandments, reminding us of the moment that God revealed His essence to the People of Israel at Mt. Sinai. I think of the Kabbalistic teaching that God spoke not only to a nation, but to each individual that day. Indeed, the commandments appear in the singular, not the plural, form. Each individual was addressed personally by God. This reminds us that each person matters; each soul is endowed with Divine light and has innate and eternal value.

This Shabbat is known as “Shabbat Nachamu,” the Shabbat of comfort. Coming immediately after Tisha B’Av, a day of national mourning, Shabbat Nachamu begins a period of healing and renewal from loss and tragedy. For us today, and especially for Israelis, this is not merely a historical memory, it is a reality. On this “Shabbat Nachamu,” I ask that we pay tribute to the soldiers of the IDF who gave their lives in the defense of the State of Israel. Indeed, they gave their lives in the defense of the Jewish nation. I ask that each of us pay tribute to their lives by speaking their names. Below, I have included the list of the soldiers who were killed in Operation Protective Edge. Sometime over Shabbat, read the list. As you read each name, consider that they had their whole lives in front of them. Imagine them smiling or laughing, enjoying the pursuits in life that brought them joy. And humbly thank them for their sacrifice.

Sgt. First Class Adi Briga, age 23, of Beit Shikma.

Cpl Meidan Maymon Biton, age 20, of Netivot.

St.Sgt. Eliav Eliyahu Haim Kahlon, age 22, of Safed

Corporal Niran Cohen, age 20, of Tiberias.

St. Sgt. Moshe Davino, age 20, of Jerusalem.

NCO Sgt. First Class Barak Refael Degorker, age 27, of Gan Yavne

Cptn Liad Lavi, age 22, of Sadeh Nitzan

CWO Rami Kahlon, age 39, of Hadera

Lt. Roi Peles, age 21, of Tel Aviv

St.-Sgt. Matan Gotlib, age 21, of Rishon Lezion

Sgt. Nadav Raimond, age 19, from Shadmot Dvora

Sgt Dor Deri, age 18, of Jerusalem

Sergeant Sagi Erez, age 19, of Kiryat Ata

Sgt Barkai Yishai Shor, age 21, of Jerusalem

Sgt. Daniel Kedmi, age 18, of Tzofim

St. Sgt. Liel Gidoni, age 20, of Jerusalem

Major Benaya Sarel, age 26, of Kiryat Arba

Cpt. Liran Edry, age 31, of Ezuz

St. Sgt. Noam Rosenthal, age 20, of Meitar.

St. Sgt. Shay Kushnir, age 20, of Kiryat Motzkin

Capt. Omri Tal, age 22, of Yehud

Sgt First Class Daniel Marash, age 22, of Rishon Lezion

St.-Sgt. Guy Algranati, age 20, of Tel Aviv

St.-Sgt. Omer Hay, age 21, of Savyon

Second Lt. Hadar Goldin, age 23, of Kfar Saba

Capt. Tsvi Kaplan, age 28, of Kibbutz Merav,

St.-Sgt. Gilad Rozenthal Yacoby, age 21, of Kiryat Ono,

Maj. Tzafrir Bar-Or, age 32, of Acre,

St. Sgt. Oz Mendelovich, age 21, of Atzmon

St. Sgt. Bnaya Rubel, age 20, of Holon

Second Lt. Bar Rahav, 21, of Ramat Yishai

Sgt. Adar Barsano, age 20, of Nahariya

Maj. Amotz Greenberg, age 45, of Hod Hasharon

St.-Sgt. Eitan Barak, age 20, of Herzliya

Stf.-Sgt. Daniel Pomerantz, age 20, of Kfar Azar

Stf.-Sgt. Shachar Tase, age 20, from Pardesiya

Sgt. Max Steinberg, age 24, of Beersheba

St.-Sgt. Oron Shaul, age 21, of Poriyah

Sgt. Ben Oanounou, age 19, of Ashdod

St. Sgt. Moshe Malko, age 20, of Jerusalem

Sgt. Nissim Sean Carmeli, age 21, of Ra’anana

NCO Ohad Shemesh, age 27, from Beit Elazari

St.-Sgt. Oded Ben Sira, age 22, from Nir Etzion

Lt.-Col. Dolev Keidar, age 38, of Modi’in,

Sgt. Shon Mondshine, age 19, of Tel Aviv

Cptn Dmitri Levitas, age 26, of Jerusalem

St.-Sgt. Evyatar Turgeman, age 20, of Beit Shean

Sgt. Nadav Goldmacher, 23, of Beersheba

Chief Warrant Officer Kasahun Baynesian, age 39, of Netivot

Lt. Paz Eliyahu, age 22, of Kibbutz Evron

Captain Natan Cohen, age 23, of Jerusalem

St.-Sgt. Jordan Bensemhoun, age 22, of Ashkelon

Second Lt. Yuval Haiman, age 21, of Efrat

St.-Sgt. Shahar Dauber, age 20, of Kibbutz Ginegar

St.-Sgt. Li Mat, age 19, of Eilat

St.-Sgt. Tal Yifrah, age 21, of Rishon Lezion

St.-Sgt. Yuval Dagan, age 22, of Kfar Saba

St.-Sgt. Avraham Grintzvaig, age 21, of Petah Tikva

St.-Sgt. Gal Bason, age 21, of Holon

St.-Sgt. Guy Levy, age 21, of Kfar Vradim

St.-Sgt. Guy Boyland, age 21, of Ginosar

St.-Sgt. Amit Yaori, age 20, of Jerusalem

NCO Master Sgt. (res.) Yair Ashkenazy, age 36, of Rehovot,

I want to conclude this post with a well-known poem by a woman known only as Zelda. Born as Zelda Schneersohn Mishkovsky in 1914, this poet for the ages lived much of her life in Jersualem until her passing in 1984. One of her most famous poems is entitled “Each of Us Has a Name.”

Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents

Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear

Each of us has a name
given by the mountains
and given by our walls

Each of us has a name
given by the stars
and given by our neighbors

Each of us has a name
given by our sins
and given by our longing

Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love

Each of us has a name
given by our celebrations
and given by our work

Each of us has a name
given by the seasons
and given by our blindness

Each of us has a name
given by the sea
and given by
our death.

May the memories, and names, of Israel’s fallen soldiers be for a blessing.

What I Will Pray For This Tisha B’Av

This week, the Jewish world will observe Tisha B’Av, a solemn day on which we recall catastrophes that have happened to the Jewish people throughout our history, primarily the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the exile of our people from the Land of Israel for a period of time that lasted nearly 2,000 years. Tisha B’Av (the name means simply “the 9th of Av,” which is the current Jewish month) is one of two 24-hour fasts on the Jewish calendar (the other being Yom Kippur), and includes the reading of the mournful Biblical book of Lamentations and chanting of kinot (dirges). In our day, so far removed in history from the time of the destruction of the Temple, Tisha B’Av has become a time to focus on Jewish peoplehood and the importance of unity. Often, texts and stories about the perils of people engaging in acts of gratuitous hatred and insensitivity are the focus of our discussion on Tisha B’Av.

This year, I expect that my prayers on Tisha B’Av will be infused with concern and worry about the war going on between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. I’m imagining that my mind and my heart will be focused not on the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, but on the danger, pain and suffering that are the offspring of war. I want to share what I think I’ll be praying for when I close my eyes in Tefilah on Tisha B’Av.

The first thing I’ll pray for is that the soldiers of the Israel Defense Force can come home to Israel in safety and unscarred by battle. I’ll pray for an end to war, and for an end to the reasons that this war had to be waged. I’ll pray that the young men of the IDF no longer have to risk their lives in battle, and that the reservists who have been called up to supplement the standing forces can return to their lives unharmed. And I’ll pray about the sadness of the lives of Israel’s soldiers that were cut short, and the pain that is surely endured by their families and loved ones.

I’ll pray that all the innocent men, women and children of Gaza who have suffered at the hands of despotic leaders and who have had their hopes for peaceful, productive lives sacrificed on the altar of ideological hatred, find their lives restored and their fears calmed. And I’ll pray about the tragedy of the civilian lives that are lost each day this dreadful conflict goes on.

The next thing that I’ll pray for is that in place of chaos, conflict and violence, the world in which we live becomes a place of wholeness where everything is in its proper place. On Tisha B’Av, we speak about the world being “overturned” (Olam Hafuch in Hebrew). Where people, communities and nations should be peaceful and tolerant of one another, we have conflict marked by violence. Where Israel, a democratic and peace loving nation that seeks to defend itself against terrorism, should be admired, instead is vilified in the media and leaders and followers cheer for the terrorists to be victorious. Where the Jewish people, who have contributed so much to the advancement of human civilization and who should have the respect of the world community, are instead the targets of hatred and disdain. Where people should love and embrace one another in a spirit of co-existence and tolerance, we have instead hatred marked by the desire to destroy the other. Where people of all ages should be able to pursue their dreams, they are drawn into war and violence. Indeed, on Tisha B’Av we symbolize Olam Hafuch by not wearing Tallit and Tefilin during the morning service (the only weekday morning in the Jewish year on which we should but don’t wear them), but we do wear them at the Mincha service in the afternoon. This year, I’ll pray that the acts of violence that shake our world every minute of every day, and the violence of war that has rocked Israel these past three weeks, are no more.

In the spirit of Tisha B’Av, I’ll pray that the destruction wrought by war, the broken lives, the broken homes, the shattered dreams, be replaced by new growth, new planting, new hope and fresh promise for the future. This is the rhythm of Tisha B’Av, one that I first experienced at Camp Ramah where this mournful day is experienced in a profound and impactful way. We begin with tasting “churban” (destruction), by telling stories of loss and tragedy. The first part of the day is marked by solemn chanting of our prayers, spoken and not sung, by reciting sad dirges and reading the Book of Eicha (Lamentations) whose words and cadence and melody quietly speak to us of the awful price of hatred and violence. But as the day goes on, we begin to focus on “binyan” (building), on gaining strength and confidence and hope that our dreams and ideals can be realized. This year, I’ll pray that the destruction, the hatred, the pain and suffering, the churban in this world, be replaced by binyan, by building up and by wholeness.

This is what I’ll pray for on Tisha B’Av…perhaps it should be what I pray for every day.