Making Meaning of Tisha B’Av Through the Lens of Literature

June 26, 2012Rabbi Jordi Schuster Battis

When you have come into the land
that the Eternal your God is giving to you as a heritage,
and you have possessed it and settled there,
you shall take from among all the first fruits of the ground
that you bring forth from your land-
which the Eternal your God has given you-
and you shall put them in the basket and go to
the place that the Eternal your God will choose to make God's name dwell.
- Deuteronomy 26:1-2

The Beit HaMikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem, stood on a spot of great import. In the Jewish eye, it was Mount Moriah, the spot on which Abraham bound his son Isaac; it was the place that Moses names again and again in Deuteronomy as ha-makom asher yivchar Adonai, "the place that the Eternal will choose." The Temple was the center of Israelite ritual: it was the place of pilgrimage on festivals, and, according to Deuteronomic history, it was the only place where sacrifices could be made. The site of the Temple and the Temple itself were understood as conduits for communication with God, and maintaining them was understood as central to our people's promise and to peoplehood itself.

When the Temple was destroyed, first in 586 BCE and again in 70 CE, it was a tragedy not only because of the loss of life and of a great building, but also because it was the loss of the central symbol and signifier for what bound the people to God and to each other. Out of the tragedy came great change and innovation: it was that or be destroyed. The first destruction (Churban) and the accompanying exile led to the birth of Diaspora Judaism, with a range of modes and practices. The second led to the dominance of rabbinic Judaism, which, of course, is what we have inherited today as the Judaism. In light of the gifts that Diaspora Judaism has offered us through time, our love of rabbinic Judaism as we know it (including Reform Judaism and its embrace of modernity), and what I think I can rightly claim as our total distaste for animal sacrifice as a means of worship, it is not a given for us to mourn the loss of the Temple.

Yet, Tisha B'Av (the ninth of the month of Av), the day on which the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed, has been marked as a day of intense mourning since rabbinic times. The Temple is in our history, and it is in our calendar to grapple with, year after year. So, what does it mean to mourn the Temple when we love our Judaism? Should we treat the traditional sadness about the Churban on Tisha B'Av as an historical artifact, or is there something we can or should mourn about the Temple now? If we do mourn, how do we treat the positives that eventually grew out of this loss?

I argue that we must take Tisha B'Av seriously and that we have several options from our literature to do so.

First, we can mark Tisha B'Av by way of Psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon, there, we sat, and,
so too, wept, in our remembering of Zion.

This Psalm offers us a glimpse of the outstanding grief of the exiles after the first Churban. As we do on Pesach when we see ourselves as having personally come out of Egypt, and as we do on Shavuot when we speak of having each actually been at Sinai, on Tisha B'Av we can see ourselves as having sat together beneath the willows, with our harps hung on their branches. On Pesach, we re-experience the joy of liberation, and thus learn how to be free. On Shavuot, we live again the awe of revelation, and thus learn the importance of obligation. So, too, on Tisha B'Av, we can experience anew the shock and grief of loss, and thus we can learn empathy.

Second, we can mark Tisha B'Av by way of rabbinic and historical accounts:

Five things happened to our ancestors… on the ninth of Av:
it was declared that our ancestors would not enter the Land,
and the first and second Temples were destroyed,
and Beitar (the last stronghold of the Bar Kokhba revolt) was captured (by the Romans),
and the City (of Jerusalem) was plowed under.
- Babylonian Talmud Taanit 26a-b

The Ninth of Av has been marred over and over again in our history by tragedies. Not only the destruction of the Temple and other events that rabbinic tradition counts as having occurred on that day, but the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, and the beginning of the deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 have all been understood to have taken place on Tisha B'Av, as have many other tragic events. Given the number of tragedies within Jewish history, Tisha B'Av gives us the chance to heap our remembrance and mourning onto one day, ensuring not only that we do not forget our history, but also that we do not become overly encumbered by it throughout the year.

Third, we can mark Tisha B'Av by way of the poetry of Yehudah Amichai and other Israeli poets:

At times Jerusalem is a city of knives,
And even the hopes for peace are sharp enough to slice into
The harsh reality and they become dulled or broken.
The church bells try so hard to ring out calm, round tones,
But they become heavy like a pestle pounding on a mortar,
Heavy, muffled, downtrodding voices. And the cantor
And the muezzin try to sing sweetly
But in the end the sharp wail bursts forth:
O Lord, God of us all, The Lord is One
One, one, one, one.
- Yehudah Amichai

The site of the Beit HaMikdash is, of course, the Temple Mount, a place holy to three religions. Marking the date of the destruction of the Temple gives us the chance to examine where we are now in our relations amongst ourselves as a people, as well as our people's relationships with others. Marking tragedy in our past can help us renew our commitment to build and nurture relationships in the present.

Jordi Schuster Battis has spent the last year as Interim Campus Rabbi at Fiedler Hillel at Northwestern University. She, her husband Seth, and their five-month-old Gershom will be relocating to the Boston area this summer.

O riginally published in Ten Minutes of Torah

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