Tisha BAv is a means to an end

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Tisha B’Av — which this year falls on Sunday, Aug. 14 — always presents a challenge.

What makes Tisha B’Av particularly difficult is more than the trial of going without food and water for a long, usually hot, summer day. More, too, than the fact that the fast, like Yom Kippur, begins the previous night and includes other prohibitions, like washing — even one’s hands — for pleasure. What makes it really hard is the mourning.

The Holy Temple in Jerusalem, after all, was destroyed (for the second time) nearly 2,000 years ago. We American Jews are more than temporally removed from those days. Yet Judaism considers our collective recollection of that distant era, and our lamenting of its increasing distance, to constitute a vital part of Jewish life. Even many Jews who fully appreciate the importance of the Temple as the central locus of the Jewish nation and the engine of the Holy Land’s sanctity find it a challenge to translate that intellectual recognition into heartfelt emotion — the essence, after all, of mourning.

A multitude of afternoon lectures and presentations about the meaning of the day and the need for personal repentance — the path, according to Jewish tradition, to national redemption — are readily available. In the New York area, even after morning services that include the recitation of Tisha B’Av-themed dirges composed over the years, some of the events draw fasting participants in the high hundreds, eager despite their discomfort to gain spiritual insights and to better themselves as Jews. Pre-recorded presentations on ethical themes are also widely offered, in synagogues and social halls across the country and around the world.

What I have personally often chosen to do for part of my Tisha B’Av afternoon is focus on events of the decade preceding my birth, a period when many Jews still blessedly with us witnessed a horrific example of a world where G-d’s face, as the Talmud puts it, was hidden.

One key to relating as modern people to the Jewish national tragedy of losing the Temples is focusing on the painful vicissitudes of subsequent Jewish history — all the horrors that ensued after we proved unworthy of divine protection. In fact, as it happens, Tisha B’Av is the date not only of the destruction of both Temples, but also of the fall of the Jewish rebel outpost at Betar to the Roman army in 135 CE; of the expulsion of England’s Jews in 1290; and France’s, in 1306; and Spain’s, in 1492.

And then there’s the Holocaust. World War II didn’t begin on Tisha B’Av, although some claim that Hitler instituted his Final Solution on that Jewish date. One thing, though, is certain. The roots of Germany’s anger in 1938 clearly lie in the country’s nationalistic angst over the terms of the treaty that ended World War I, which broke out on Aug. 1, 1914 — Tisha B’Av.

In truth, even tragedies that befell our people that have no clear chronological connection to Tisha B’Av are part of its mourning. Among the day’s poetic dirges are lamentations over the Crusades and the public burning of thousands of Talmuds in Paris’ city square in 1242.

It would therefore be well within the spirit of Tisha B’Av to ponder even contemporary evils. Like the anti-Semitic threats spewed forth by Islamist preachers, or al-Qaida’s sinister pontifications about “Zionists and Crusaders,” or anti-Israel university professors’ rants, or rabid, Jew-hating Web sites, or Hamas summer camps where children are taught how praiseworthy it is to kill Jews.

And so it is really not so difficult after all to get into a “Tisha B’Av” mood. In fact, the greater accomplishment may well be in managing a festive mood when the happy month of Adar arrives.

For my part, I am still focused on the Holocaust. This Tisha B’Av, I intend to see and listen to some of the testimony my dear father and teacher, may he live and be well, offered the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, Steven Spielberg’s laudable effort to preserve first-person accounts of the Holocaust years.

I have heard much of my father’s story before, but it never ceases to seize my mind and heart. At the start of the war, when he was 14, he insisted on leaving his parents to study in yeshiva. His incomprehensible (even to him, now) determination would save his life; he never saw his parents again. It is wrenching to hear of the flights and fears and bullets and frigid Siberian nights that he experienced over the years that followed. Concentrating on the ordeals of even one young man, amid millions of other Jewish men, women and children, serves the cause of Tisha B’Av well.

And it does so on a level beyond sadness too. For, while millions of Jews, tragically, did not survive the onslaught of Hitler and his friends, some did, and my father was among them. He came to this blessed country and married the wonderful daughter of an esteemed Baltimore rabbi and rebbetzin, my beloved mother and teacher; and they had children, who now have children, and some of them grandchildren, of their own. When my mother, may her memory be a blessing, passed away 16 years ago, my father had the incredible fortune of meeting and then marrying a woman who is beloved to me like a second mother, and who is a grandmother in every sense to my own children.

Which is to say that my father’s story is particularly well-suited for a Tisha B’Av afternoon. Because the Talmud teaches that Jewish sorrows are a means, not an end, that the Jewish people can merit redemption and the return of G-d’s manifest involvement in our collective life. One day, it says, Tisha B’Av will be not a day of mourning but of rejoicing. May it come soon.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.

Rabbi Avi Shafran
Rabbi Avi Shafran

Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox Jewish organization