Sunday (July 29, 2012) is Tisha B’av, a day of commemoration named by its date on the Hebrew calendar. (Of course, it begins the prior evening, as do all Jewish calendar observances.) Ironically, this year, Tisha B’av (literally, the ninth day of the month of Av) is held on the tenth of the month of Av, a calendar shift made by the rabbis when the ninth day of Av falls on Shabbat. While this day marks the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem, it has come to be the day that marks much of Jewish historical catastrophe (except those that are marked separately such as Yom Hashoah—Holocaust Memorial Day). Tisha B’av is a full fast day (like Yom Kippur); it is a day of mourning. Thus, many—not all—of the behaviors associated with Yom Kippur are also associated with Tisha B’av.
Admittedly, I have always had a tough time with Tisha B’av. Early Reformers simply rejected it out of hand. I presume it snuck back into the calendar of liberals through the program staff at Jewish summer camps. And it is also caught in the trend of reclaiming those rituals and observances that were rejected because they were seen to separate us from our non-Jewish neighbors. This is no longer the case for this generation of fully American American Jews. Nevertheless, I struggle with Tisha B’av. I don’t buy the traditional reason for the destruction of the Temples as sinat chinam (senseless hatred, referring to the hate among Jews for one another), although I do see such behaviors as increasing in this generation, and I worry about them. I also don’t see the diaspora in its more traditional terms as galut (exile), something that was traditionally associated with the destruction of the Temple. Rather, I see the so-called diaspora as an opportunity for the Jewish people to fulfill its obligation as or lagoyim (a light unto the nations). And I certainly don’t see us mourning Jerusalem at a time where we celebrate her as the heart and soul of modern Israel, as a place, for me, where heaven and earth touch.
And yet, this Sunday (and Saturday night), I will find myself in the synagogue, sitting on the floor, reciting the book of Lamentations. (A commercial message: feel free to use the translation and commentary by Rabbi Leonard Kravitz and me.) I will be fasting—not because of the traditional reasons for doing so, but rather, because I want all of my spiritual focus to be on the salient themes of the holiday rather than on the needs of myself as a physical being. Moreover, I want to be in solidarity with those across the world who have voluntarily taken on the covenantal relationship with the Divine as I have, and thereby feel obligated to maintain the requirements of that covenant. And I want to be sensitive to those who came before me, who may have suffered the tragedies of Jewish history, and honor their memory in this way.
Admittedly, Tisha B’av is not a low-barrier observance. It is difficult to motivate people to mark it in a traditional, or even untraditional, way. I understand that those on the periphery of the community may not feel addressed by it. But sometimes, one needs—I need—to enter into the depths of Judaism and luxuriate in them for one’s own well-being. I invite you to do so, as well. And should you want to join me, I will be at shul.
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