Dear Rabbi Fried,
I know the day of Tisha B’Av is coming up soon, but I have never really succeeded in observing it properly because I have a lot of trouble trying to mourn over a temple I never saw or experienced and don’t feel its loss. Is there anything you can give me to hold on to which would add some meaning to someone like me?
You are referring to the fast day known as Tisha B’Av, meaning the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av. [Ed. note: This year, Tisha B’Av began last night and continues today, Thursday, July 30, until dark.] This is the date that numerous calamities have befallen the Jewish people throughout our history, most notably the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem. Each of these destructions opened a period of harsh exile for the Jewish people. The first destruction kicked off the 70-year Babylonian exile; the second began the bitter Roman exile which continues until today.
The difficulty you are experiencing is, unfortunately, one felt by even most observant Jews, who may outwardly observe the laws and customs of the day, yet have much difficulty in truly feeling the sadness and mourning. Although there are Jews who are on a very high level of piety and scholarship and can truly appreciate the tremendous loss of the Temple and all it stood for, and mourn deeply over its loss, that doesn’t apply to most of us.
The very laws themselves, when observed properly, actually help a lot in getting into the spirit. Fasting, sitting on the floor or a low stool a large part of the day, reading from the Book of Lamentations and other dirges and refraining from joyous activities and music all contribute to the feeling of mourning. The three-week preparation period prior to the actual fast, especially the minor mourning customs during that time, all serve as an important preparation to set the mood of the day as well.
The most important thing I find for myself is the focus on the entirety of Diaspora history. It’s not only the Temple itself we mourn over, but all the subsequent tragedies which have befallen our people subsequent to, and as a result of, that destruction and the pursuant Diaspora of our people: the inquisitions, pogroms, blood libels, anti-Semitism at many levels, the unspeakable Holocaust and, lately, suicide bombings and more. These are all part and parcel of the loss of our lofty state and closeness to G-d which we had with the Temple in Jerusalem. Many of the dirges recited on Tisha B’Av refer to calamities which transpired during these later periods of Jewish history. Most notably, two heart-rending dirges were composed by two leading sages of the last generation, reflecting the horrors of the Holocaust. I, personally, spend much of my time on Tisha B’Av reflecting on, and reading about, the events and suffering of the Holocaust. I find this brings the day home to the heart in a way we can relate to.
I also think about, on that day, the terrible “spiritual holocaust” we are presently witnessing before our eyes in America. We’ve lost 2 million Jews from our census charts in the past 20 years. This reflects a loss of 100,000 Jews a year, around 300 a day, for the last 20 years! Although this holocaust is happening with beautiful homes and cars rather than concentration camps and crematoria, the net result in loss of Jews is no less catastrophic. In some ways it’s even worse: The Jews who were killed in Auschwitz and Treblinka died as Jews; many of our brethren are being lost in America by exiting their status as Jews.
The more we can expose our fellow Jews in America to the beauty of our heritage and the Torah, we can turn back the present Tisha B’Av. In that merit, may it become a day of rejoicing with our final redemption and return to our homeland!
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Rabbi Fried,