Over the last two weeks, my sermons have been devoted to subjects of American Jewish history. Tonight, I deviate from this pattern to discuss an important lesson of Tisha B’Av, the observance of the Ninth of Av which we mark this Monday evening and Tuesday. While not a prominent part of the Reform liturgical calendar, Tisha B’Av is the saddest day of the Jewish year. It commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, the first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, the second by the Romans in 70 CE. Our ancestors understood that these national tragedies were God’s retribution for Israel’s sins, the sins of immorality, injustice, and idolatry led to the destruction of the First Temple and the sin of chinat sinam, groundless internecine hatred of Jews for other Jews. “The Talmud already knew of the phenomenon and its destructive effect on Jewish life. Yoma 9b records that the First Temple was burned down because of idol worship, sexual immorality and bloodshed. At the time of the Second Temples destruction, the Jews were, on the other hand, pious but the Temple was lost because sinat chinam, groundless hatred, was endemic to Jewish national life. From this the Talmud infers that groundless hatred is as grave as idol worship, sexual immorality,and bloodshed put together.”
Our Reform forbears removed the observance of Tisha B’Av from our Reform calendar because they did not see the destruction of the Temples, the home of the priesthood and sacrificial rite, as something to be mourned. Rather, they thought that the passage to Rabbinic Judaism, which the destruction of the Second Temple presaged, was quite positive for the future of the Jewish people and humanity. The early Reformers removed all references to the hopeful restoration of the Temple’s sacrificial cult from our worship. The last thing they, and we, would like to see is the rebuilding of the Third Temple in Jerusalem.
This does not mean, however, that we should not observe Tisha B’Av. On the contrary, if we have any historical sensibilities whatsoever, we remember the death of hundreds of thousands of our ancestors and the dispersion of our people. When the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, we lost any semblance of power as a nation. Until the creation of the State of Israel sixty five years ago, we were a people who lived on the margins of history, existing on the sufferance of others rather than through our own strength. Today, we have the ability, within great limitations, to determine our fate as a people. That ability was taken from us 1943 years ago.
Yet we find something fascinating and familiarly Jewish within the liturgy for this Shabbat morning and Tisha B’Av itself. “This dynamic is best captured in the three haftarot we recite on the two days. The first, which we read tomorrow morning, is from the first chapter of the Book of Isaiah. It is a searing indictment of the nation’s sin. “Sinful nation, brood of evildoers, depraved children…Your land is a waste, your cities burnt down…Your new moons and fixed seasons fill Me with loathing…Though you pray at length, I will not listen. Your hands are stained with crime.” The rebuke in the haftarah for Tisha B’av morning from Jeremiah, chapter 8, is equally sharp. “They are all adulterers, a band of rogues,” but now there is also mourning, “My anguish has no cure. I am sick at heart…Is there no balm in Gilead? Can no physician be found? Oh that my head were water, my eyes a font of tears! Then would I weep day and night for the slain of my poor people.” Finally, in the afternoon service, there is the haftarah from Isaiah, chapter 55, which contains the promise of redemption. “Seek the Eternal while there is still time; call out while God is near. Let the wicked forsake their ways and the sinful their thoughts. Let them return to the Eternal, who will show them compassion, to our God who is quick to forgive…You shall go out in joy: you shall be led forth in peace. Before you, mountains and hills shall break forth in joyous song.”
“In the progression of these three haftarot, the liturgy carries us from rebuke to mourning to redemption.” Even in the midst of destruction, in the time of deepest mourning, of greatest lamentation, God plants within us the seeds of hope and comfort. “There is an ancient tradition that on the day on which the Temple was destroyed, the Messiah was born. The Passover Seder takes us from slavery to redemption, all in a single night, and Tisha B’Av is followed by seven Sabbaths of Consolation.”
Thus we learn a very important lesson- that within mourning begins the process of healing, that the dark skies of night can yield to morning light, that tears may eventually give way to laughter. We name our babies after deceased ancestors. A funeral procession gives way for a wedding procession. Our haftarot of rebuke always end with a nechemta, with words of consolation. Thus our Tradition brings, along with rebuke and censure, a message of comfort and consolation. Life always takes precedence over death; light always follows darkness; birth always follows death. Even in the midst of the valley of shadows, God is the Redeemer, the One who brings help and hope to His people.
Amen and Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Julian Sinclair, March 6, 2009, London Jewish Chronicle
Rabbi Neil Gillman, New York Jewish Week, August 12, 2005.