Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Tisha B'Av in the 21st Century

Today is Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, the infamous and tragic date on the Hebrew calendar when the First Temple (of Solomon) was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, and the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. It is a day of fasting and mourning, when Eicha (the Book of Lamentations) is read in the synagogue, Torah study is set aside, and the customs of mourning are observed.

For many liberal Jews, there are two significant impediments to observing Tisha B’Av. First, nearly two millennia have passed since the destruction of the Second Temple. Should we continue to mourn? For those who do not pray for the rebuilding of the Temple – for those who believe that prayer, study, and deeds of kindness are superior ways to worship God than the reinstitution of sacrifices – Tisha B’Av raises this question: is it relevant? A second problem for many Jews trying to extract meaning from Tisha B’Av is that while it commemorates two cataclysmic historical events, the Talmud lays the blame for both squarely at the feet of the Jewish people: their sins led to the destruction of both Temples. In the minds of the Rabbis, the Babylonians and Romans were mere instruments of God for punishing Israel for her sins. This theology is troubling to many modern Jews.

I acknowledge both concerns as legitimate, but for the moment, I want to move around them to ask: without evaluating these concerns, what lessons can we extract for the 21st century from the historical events and traditional interpretations surrounding Tisha B’Av? Viewed in this way, Tisha B’Av is a primer in why religious communities and institutions fail, and how we fail our religious communities and institutions.

Tradition holds that the First and Second Temples were destroyed for very different reasons. (Or were they really so different?) The Talmud tells us that the First Temple was destroyed because the Jewish People were engaged in idolatry. They violated their exclusive covenant with God and worshiped the idols of surrounding peoples, flagrantly neglecting the moral obligations of Torah. They failed to address the suffering of the most vulnerable members of society, and engaged in hedonistic moral crimes. The people were more concerned with their narrow, personal interests, than the needs of those in the community suffering deprivation, and the manner in which the sacrifices were being carried out on their behalf in the Temple. The Rabbis tell us that the Second Temple was destroyed due to sinat chinam, gratuitous hatred. The community was in an extreme state of disarray and disunity. People placed their own self-aggrandizing concerns above all else.

In a sense, the two explanations – for the destruction of the First Temple and the Second Temple – are the same. Misplaced values and priorities, selfishness and self-aggrandizing behavior, weaken the bonds of community and cause the disintegration of religious institutions. When people pull together as a community, setting aside some of their personal desires in favor of the needs of the community, the community thrives and is strong enough to resist assault from without. In both cases, had people operated as a true community, the Rabbis tell us, they would have been able to save Jerusalem. Certainly we can recognize the vicissitudes of history, and the role the Babylonians and Romans played in the destruction of the First and Second Temples, but at the same time, we have all seen the truth that how we set our priorities, and how we live in community, can be either destructive or life-sustaining.

Seven special Haftarah portions pave a spiritual road from Tisha B’Av to Rosh Hashanah. Each offers us the promise of forgiveness, the possibility of substantive change for ourselves and for our communities. The Torah portion we will read on the shabbat prior to Rosh Hashanah spells out this choice in unmistakable terms:
See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity. For I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, to walk in God’s ways, and to keep God’s commandments, laws, and rules, that you may thrive and increase… I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life – if you and your offspring would live – by loving the Lord your God, heeding God’s commands, and holding fast to God. (Deuteronomy 30: 15, 16, 19, 20)
May our choices and priorities be for life and blessing.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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