The three weeks of mourning we have just culminated with today’s fast of Tisha b’Av. The Roman legions in Jerusalem were able to breach the walls of Jerusalem and set the Second Temple on fire. This was a catastrophic event for the Jewish people, who had previously centred their worship in and around the Temple and symbolized exile from the land of Israel.
To many Jewish people at the time, it would have seemed that it was the end of Judaism. Many people living in Israel died in the war against the Romans. Others that survived the war were sold into slavery, killed by fire or crucified. The people of Israel were scattered and sent across the world and Judaism as it had previously been practised and adhered to was irrevocably changed.
The ancient Jewish historian Josephus describes in detail the terrible conditions the people of Israel endured during the destruction of the Second Temple: “Famine overcomes all other passions and is destructive of modesty… Wives pulled the morsels that their husbands were eating out of their very mouths and children did the same to their fathers and so did mothers to their infants, and when those that were most dear to them were perishing in their hands, they were not ashamed to take from them the very last drops of food that might have preserved their lives…”
These words give insight into the depth of suffering the people endured. In the four hundred years prior to the Temple’s destruction, it had played an integral role in Jewish worship. All ritual, from Yom Kippur to Passover, was centred around the Temple, with its visible rites and Priests. The festivals were marked by masses throning to Jerusalem so that communal worship, centred around the Temple, a physical building.
Following the destruction of the Second Temple, the Jewish people faced an existential crisis. Now that the Temple was destroyed, would the Jewish people continue to exist as a people? Now that the symbol of the covenant between G-d and the Jewish people had been destroyed, had G-d abandoned them and rejected the Jewish people?
And yet, the Rabbinic tradition of Judaism that emerged from the destruction of the Temple has endured the test of time and continues to be the way we practice our decentralised Judaism now there is no Temple.
As we mourn through this difficult period in our history, we are reminded of the promise from the prophets that there will yet be better days ahead. Tisha B’av is an unlucky day in which tragedy has befallen the Jewish people even prior to the current exile we are in. The first Temple was also destroyed on Tisha B’av.
The Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans ended in defeat and sadness on TishA B’av. And other unfortunate events befell the Jewish people such as the expulsion of all Jews from Spain in 1492. The Book of Eichah which is traditionally read on Tisha B’av ends with the verse “Restore us to You, O L rd, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old.”
There is yet hope for our future that better times will come ahead. Now more than ever, in the depths of a global pandemic, we yearn for these better times.
We may not have a Temple to worship and pray at, but we have hope that in the future this period of mourning will be turned into a period of joy. It is no coincidence that Tisha B’av is called a ‘mo’ed’ which is generally translated as ‘holiday.’ While a fast day may not seem like a holiday, we certainly will be able to look back at this time and see that the tragedies that befell our people were merely a prelude to the good times that we will experience ahead in the not-too-distant future.