Tisha B'Av: Not Just for the Orthodox!

We know that much “history” – what happened during and before our lifetimes -- greatly affects “who we are” and how we self-identify.  Yet, few of us consciously define our lives in an expressly historical way.   Unless we experienced a traumatic or clearly life-changing event, we don’t say or even think “I am who I am because of what happened.” Nor do we think or say, “I am a link in a chain of many generations.”  But doing so would likely enrich the meaning inand of our lives. 

In this week’s Torah portion, Devarim, the first in Deuteronomy, Moses knows that he is soon to die.  How does he begin his last oration?  Rather than praising G-d or reiterating the Commandments, he begins with a narrative history of Israel’s experiencessince receiving the Commandments.  Perhaps he realizes that to ensure the future of the “Jewish people,” his most important task is to ensure that they don’t forget their past –especially the bitter parts. 

Most of us do not consider ourselves bound by either the commandments or by millennia of rabbinic decrees.  Many of us also question much of Jewish“belief.”  What, then, is the substantive basis for most Jews’ still visceral connection to Judaism?  Perhaps our strongly felt, if seldom acknowledged or expressed, connection to Jewish history is truly themost important element to our Jewish identity. Without that, we might be just (to use a phrase I heard recently) “gastronomic Jews.”  

It’s no accident that Passover and Chanukah are the most “observed” Jewish holidays in America.  Although there are many reasons (special foods, happy songs, family gatherings, and other traditions), I suspect that their overly historical focus is among the most important reason.  Our history continues to resonate deeply within us.

Which brings me to this Sunday, Tisha B’Av.   Many of us won’t even realize that it is “Tisha B’Av” (the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av), and most who do will nevertheless ignore it.  This is a lost opportunity to feel connectedto the Jewish people.  Tisha B’Av is the “saddest day in the Jewish year,” the day our people mourns the destruction of bothTemples, the sin of the scouts who disparaged the Promise Land (leading to 38 more years of wandering in the desert), the failure of the Bar Kochba rebellion, the 1492 explusion from Spain, and other calamities.  It is the “other” annual 24-hour fast day.  We read the Books of Lamentations and Job (but, extraordinarily, must abstain from studying any other part of Torah) and siton the floor or on low stools.   It’s a day not to have fun. 

Many liberal rabbis see no point in observing Tisha B’Av, saying “why should we mourn the destruction of the Temples 2,000 years later?  We don’t want to see them rebuilt, and anyway, now we have Jerusalem back.”  I disagree with this dismissal.  We modern, liberal Jews – and our children and grandchildren -- whose connection to Judaism is often tenuous amid assimilation, intermarriage, and without halachah, daily prayer, etc., would benefit by observing this intensely historical holiday. Doing so will help maintain and deepen our and their sense of attachment to AmYisrael – Jewish peoplehood.  It’s not just for the Orthodox!

This Tisha B’Av (immediately after Shabbat and throughSunday), I recommend marking the holiday by doing something appropriate to sadness (and/or by not doing something uplifting).  Light a memorial candle.  Omit a meal or two.  Don’t go shopping or to the movies.  Don’t watch the Olympics.   Read Lamentations and Job, perhaps for the first time.  Help make a minyan at a schul that is holding services. Discuss Tisha B’Av with your family and with other Jews.  And try to imagine what it must have been like for our people – your people -- during those and other catastrophes.  Keep the memory of what they experienced part of who you and your family are.   You’ll feel more Jewish, more connected.  And rejoicing during our happy holidays will be even sweeter.

Shabbat shalom. 

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3