Thoughts on Tisha b’Av

Almost three weeks ago, on the 17th of Tammuz, many Jews in Israel and around the world began the countdown to the most devastating time in Jewish history, Tisha b’Av. Traditionally, on the 17th of Tammuz 587 BCE, the armies of Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to the city of Jerusalem. Fourteen days later, on the Rosh Chodesh Av, Nebuchadnezzar’s siege engines breached the walls of Jerusalem and the invaders worked their way to Solomon’s Temple. On Tisha b’Av they razed the Temple to the ground. 

Through the centuries, Tisha b’Av has become a time of mournful remembrance not only of the destruction of the 1st Temple in Jerusalem but also the 2nd at the hands of the Roman war machinery in 70 CE. Along with these two destructions, various other atrocities are recalled, including Crusades from the Medieval Period and the “final solution” of the Holocaust. 

Aside from special prayers and piyyutim (medieval Jewish poetry) and the reading of Eicah (Lamentations), Tisha b’Av is also commemorated by a complete 25-hour fast similar to that of Yom Kippur. The primary difference in the two fasts is that there is no celebratory festive meal before the fast of Tisha b’Av, as we are already in a time of contemplative mourning. Do all Jews, everywhere, fast on Tisha b’Av? Unfortunately, no, and for many, though the day is noted on the calendar, life goes on as normal with little thought to the history and the reason for the observance. I see this as another unraveling tether to our past, that serves as an identity marker to who we are and from whence we’ve come. I recently quoted a line from Fiddler on the Roof, a bit of wisdom from Tevye the milkman, “Because of our traditions, we have kept our balance for many, many years. … And because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is, and what God expects him to do.” Our traditions, our practices, serve to identify the people of Israel as the “am segula,” the chosen people of Hashem – those who were set apart to be holy as He is holy (Deuteronomy 14:2). The atrocities that have befallen Israel have not eradicated that chosenness, rather they have reinforced it. HaShem expressed this concept to the prophet Jeremiah while Judah was anticipating Nebuchadnezzar’s arrival and Jerusalem’s destruction,

Thus says ADONAI, who gives the sun as a light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars as a light by night, who stirs up the sea so its waves roar, ADONAITzva’ot is His Name: “Only if this fixed order departs from before Me”—it is a declaration of ADONAI—“then also might Israel’s offspring cease from being a nation before Me—for all time.” Thus says ADONAI: “Only if heaven above can be measured and the foundations of the earth searched out beneath, then also I will cast off the offspring of Israel—for all they have done.” It is a declaration of ADONAI.

Jeremiah 31:34-36, TLV

One more thought to ponder as we approach Tisha b’Av is the loving-kindness and compassion of HaShem. This morning, during Shacharit, I was overwhelmed by one of the preparatory prayers that are said before Pesukei d’Zimra (Verses of Praise).

לעולם A person should always be God-fearing, privately and publicly, acknowledging the truth and speaking it in his heart. He should say:

Master of all worlds, not because of our righteousness do we lay our pleas before You, but because of Your great compassion.

Koren Siddur, Nusah Askenaz, p 34

Later in the service, the prayer Avinu Malkenu ends with the following,

אבינו מלכנו Our Father, our King, be gracious to us and answer us, though we have no worthy deeds; act with us in charity and loving-kindness and save us.

Koren Siddur, Nusah Askenaz, p 42

These two prayers, as well as many others in the Siddur, teach us that we do not depend upon our own righteousness or good works, because in comparison to His, ours are nothing. So what is it that we do depend upon? In good times and bad times, in times of discipline and even in heart-wrenching times of atrocity, we depend on the loving-kindness and compassion of the One who has called us to Himself.

Some would ask, “This is all fine and good, but now that I am a follower of Messiah Yeshua, why should all this history affect me today? Doesn’t Paul say that the ‘old things have passed away and all things have become new’?” Besides taking Paul’s statement out of context, this train of thought ignores HaShem’s words expressed in Jeremiah 31 as quoted above. If Hashem is never going to cast off or forsake His chosen people, then His chosen people have a responsibility to remain faithful to Him as His covenant people. Jewish believers in Yeshua each have a responsibility to stand with all of Israel as they are part and parcel of Israel. Jewish Yeshua believers have a communal responsibility to the traditions and practices of Israel, even if others let those traditions and practices fall by the wayside either by choice or by a lack of understanding.  

Zechariah says, that one day this time of fasting will be turned into a time of joy, but that time has not yet arrived (cf. Zechariah 8:19). I adjure you, whether you choose to fast on Tisha b’Av or not, to set some time aside to mourn with those who mourn (cf. Romans 12:15) and to intercede on their behalf and on behalf of all Israel that the Messianic Age would come upon us all soon and all of our mourning turned to rejoicing.

Shabbat Shalom

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