You can set your watch to it

By Rabbi Shawn Zell
Parashat Devarim

You can set your watch to the fact that when we begin reading Deuteronomy, the fifth and final book of the Torah, Tisha B’Av, a day that will live on in infamy among our people, is soon upon us. For it was on Tisha B’Av — the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av — that both the first and second holy Temples were destroyed in Jerusalem. You can also set your watch to three other aspects about Tisha B’Av that we Jews would do well to remember.

Even though Mea Culpa originated in the Confiteor, a prayer of confession of sinfulness in the Catholic Church, we Jews have been conditioned to see catastrophes in pretty much the same way.

Only, we never resorted to Latin. We didn’t have to. The Hebrew “Al chet sheh chatanu” or “For the sins we have sinned” served us equally well, if not better. That is why the rabbinic sages of the Talmud pointed to “sinat chinam” or baseless hatred (among Jews) rather than Roman repression as the cause for the destruction of the second Temple. Yet, regardless of religious identification, no Jew takes a dim view of Italians because of the catastrophe brought about by their Roman ancestors two thousand years ago. We Jews hold ourselves responsible, and no one else, for this horrific event as well as its seemingly endless aftermath that came our way as a people. And so it was, throughout our history. It wasn’t until the dawning of the 20th century that we were prepared to abandon self-flagellation as a response to what befell our people. Prior to that, you could set your watch to our holding ourselves responsible for the calamities that came our way. 

“The weeping affected the entire congregation. They were seized with the dread of the days to come. Will they too ever have to abandon their synagogue? The tears flowed silently as a prayer to G-d rose from the depths of every heart, that this synagogue might be their final place of rest and refuge until the coming of the Messiah.” So wrote Yiddish author Sholom Asch in his fiction-based-on-fact novel, “Kiddush HaShem.” During centuries of being unwelcome guests, Jews were at best tolerated in countries throughout Eastern Europe. As such, Jews were wary of becoming too comfortable in any one place. The best Eastern European Jews could hope for was being tolerated by their non-Jewish hosts. It was only a matter of time until another pogrom reared its ugly head, forcing Jews to abandon everything they had worked for and to seek refuge elsewhere. One thing you could be sure of, however: In no time whatsoever, the Jew would pick himself up, dust himself off and start all over again. Like those who preceded him, the uprooted Jew could be counted upon to settle elsewhere and put down roots for yet another time. You could set your watch to it because such was the destiny of the Jew, ever since being exiled from the land of Israel, after the destruction of the holy Temple in Jerusalem on Tisha B’Av.

As devastating as it was for the uprooted Jew, the Jew could find comfort as well as fortitude in his heritage of both study and worship. Regardless of how many synagogues were set ablaze over the centuries by the enemy, the enemy could never destroy the burning desire among Jews to communicate with G-d through prayer. Regardless of how many times the enemy confiscated, desecrated and exterminated our holy texts, Jewish learning never skipped a beat. If there is anything to be learned from our European experience, it is that as precarious and vulnerable as our corporeal existence is and as destructible as our earthly possessions have proven to be, our heritage remains invincible. Succinctly stated, time after time, our enemies have had various degrees of success in destroying Jews. Never once, however, have our enemies been able to destroy Judaism. Precedent was set when our Talmudic sages reacted to the tragedy of Tisha B’Av by continuing to teach Torah in the town of Yavneh. This act of regrouping set the tone for catastrophes that were to come our way over the centuries. You could set your watch to it.

Because we have been able to set our watch to never letting vengeance consume us, because we have been able to set our watches to possessing the fortitude to start all over again and because we have been able to set our watches to always make the time for study, Tisha B’Av will remain a temporary observance. Because of our efforts, sooner or later the time will come for the advent of Moshiach. You can set your watch to it.

Rabbi Shawn Zell serves Tiferet Israel Congregation. He is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas and the author of “The Right Word,” a guide to fulfilling the mitzvah of comforting and visiting a mourner.

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