Tisha b'Av in the 21st Century

Tisha b’Av—the ninth of the month of Av—is not one of the most widely observed holidays in the “progressive” movements of Judaism.  Many modern Jews don’t connect with the disasters the holiday commemorates—the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the fall of Betar (signifying the end of the Bar Kochba rebellion in 135CE), the expulsion from Spain in 1492.  The centerpiece of Tisha b’Av observance is certainly mourning for the loss of the Temple.  Which can make it a difficult commemoration since many Jews feel at least ambivalence, if not outright opposition, about the idea of the restoration of the Temple if it also means the restoration of animal sacrifice.  Many Orthodox Jews don’t understand the ambivalence many more liberal Jews feel about the Temple;  a blogger, Bec, wrote "please, please tell me that all of conservative judaism doesn’t believe that there’s no need for the templeplease, please tell me that all of conservative judaism doesn’t believe that there’s no need for the temple."  This Conservative rabbi at least does pray for the restoration of the Temple–my vision of what that time of the restored Temple woud look like can be read here.

The annual cycle of Jewish holidays is designed to cover the range of human emotions—joyous, sad, reflective, commemorative, and so on.  Tisha b’Av is the time for mourning.  However, I believe that for Tisha b’Av to accomplish its purpose, it needs to be more than a time for commemorating disasters that have befallen our people.  It needs to be a time to inspire us to do something to prevent more disasters from occurring. 

Kabbalah teaches that the Messiah will not come until we have done “tikkun olam,” healing or repair of the world.  Velveteen Rabbit brings a nice teaching about Tisha b’Av and the "four worlds" model of Kabbalah, suggesting that the on the level of atzilut, emanation, Tisha b’Av represents our distance from God; I would say instead perhaps that Tisha b’Av represents not the brokeness in our relationship with the infinite, but rather the brokeness in our relationship with the part of the infinite that consists of our fellow man.

There’s a teaching that says the Messiah won’t come until three days after he’s no longer needed.  According to this view of the Messianic age, the Messiah doesn’t come to make everything perfect—instead, the Messiah’s arrival is sort of a “graduation ceremony,” an acknowledgement that we created the kind of world into which the Messiah could come.

If we are observing the holiday of Tisha b’Av, it means we have failed.  It means that once more, we have not done the work to create the kind of world into which the Messiah could come.  The Temple has not been rebuilt.  There is still strife and senseless hatred in the world.  I fast on Tisha b’Av not so much in mourning for the destruction of 2,000 years ago, but to remind myself that we have not accomplished our work of making the world a better place.  Given the realities of the “neighborhood” Israel lives in, the Temple will not be rebuilt until our Arab cousins decide to invite us to do so—and today we seem further away than ever from such an eventuality.

Israel is at war in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.  Kassam rockets regularly land in Sderot and Ashkelon, and dozens of Katyushas a day are landing in Haifa, Tiberias, Nehariya, Nazareth, and other cities in the northern part of Israel.  The current situation is a grim reminder of how far we have to go in creating that world of peace, the world symbolized by Jerusalem and the Temple restored.

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Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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