August 2016, Tisha Be’av

Dear friends,

This week is the saddest week in the Jewish calendar. It is the second half of the period known as the Three Weeks, and is referred to as the Nine Days, culminating in the saddest day of Jewish year, Tisha Be’av. On Tisha Be’av we fast for a full 25 hours like Yom Kippur, in fact the only other fast day which starts the night before. During the Three Weeks we practise certain laws of mourning; we neither shave, cut our hair, nor listen to music. Weddings are never held during this period and all other celebrations are avoided if possible.

During the Nine Days there is a further prohibition on eating meat, and on Tisha Be’av we sit on the floor or low stools as mourners in the Shiva period. Some people sit in sackcloth with ashes on their head, a practise reminiscent of the Biblical prophet Jeremiah. In the Shule we went to as kids, a tradition even developed to throw spiky acorns at worshippers to enhance their feeling of misery.

The reason for all this is because according to our tradition Tisha Be’av is the day the greatest calamities befell our people. The first and second Temples were both destroyed on those days; the first by the Babylonians, the second by the Romans in the year 70 in the Common Era. There is additionally a long list of other traumas experienced by our people on this day, and the list seems to sadly grow bigger as our history unfolds. It is a matter of record that on this day, the First Crusade officially commenced leading to massacres in numerous medieval Jewish communities; Jews were expelled from England, France and Spain; and approval from the Nazi Party for ‘The Final Solution’, all took place. And this is by no means an exhaustive list.

Still, the two greatest tragedies traditionally remembered on this day are the destruction of the Temples and its associated devastation on the Jewish People at that time. To put the destruction of the Second Temple into context, according to Josephus, the Jewish historian at the time, there were 1.1 million Jewish deaths as a result of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. Though modern scholarship places the figures much lower, the sense of overwhelming devastation cannot be denied. The fall of Jerusalem was then followed, half a century later, by the smashing of the Bar Kochba revolt in which the remaining Jewish population suffered another crushing blow. Suffice it to say that when Hadrian returned to Rome, he did not use the usual greeting of the Roman Caesars ‘I and my army are well’ rather he said ‘I am well’. His army was not well since a tenth were lost in battle.

Having taken such a toll, the Romans spared no effort in ensuring the Jews would pay the most horrible price using the most brutal means. Besides killing most of the population, they took particular delight in the torture of its prominent leaders. Rabbi Akiva, a leader in the Bar Kochba Revolt, was skinned alive. Another prominent rabbi was burnt alive wrapped in a Sefer Torah with wet cotton wool placed around his vital organs to ensure he remained conscious for as long as possible to experience the utmost suffering. And on and on.
What is the point of remembering all this tragedy? According to our Sages the destruction of the Second Temple was attributed to the baseless hatred that prevailed among the Jews. If the Jews had been united, they would have merited God’s protection. They would have withstood the Romans. It was the factionalism among Jews that ultimately brought about the destruction of the Second Temple.

And this is why Tisha Be’av could not be more relevant today. Today there are many vitriolic splits within Judaism, but most prominent amongst them is the divide between Orthodox and Conservative/Reform. But beyond that, the factionalism that was the cause of the destruction of the Temple according to the Rabbis, included the Sadducees who rejected the authority of the Oral Law and Halacha, in its entirety. We therefore have conclusive evidence that according to the rabbis of the Talmud, the demonising of any Jewish faction no matter of its theological outlook is the greatest source of tragedy for the Jewish People.

I remember a teaching of the late Lubavitch Rebbe that has had a lasting positive impact on me and one that is highly relevant to the topic at hand. Talking in relation to the mourning period of the Omer in which according to the Talmud 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva perished as a result of their disrespect they had for one another, the Rebbe asked, how is it possible that the students of Rabbi Akiva, who preached ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ be guilty of the sin of hating one another?

The answer the Rebbe gave was that the disrespect they showed one another was actually a result of a deep-seated love and care they had one for another. When one perceived that the other was worshipping God in a way that was foreign to them, they had to use all the tools at their disposal to try and ‘save the soul’ of their fellow students. Instead of recognising that there are many pathways to God, each was preoccupied in ensuring that their particular religious framework be assumed by all. This narrow-minded and misguided love brought about their decimation which we remember and commemorate until today.

So it is, whether our disunity is a result of ‘baseless hatred’ or bigoted love, the result is always a catastrophe for the Jewish People.

May we merit on this Tisha Be’av to experience a collective epiphany where we can acknowledge our differences, talk about them, and yet treat each other with the respect due to every human being. Rather than judgement and lines in the sand, we need empathy and understanding that most people, even non-Orthodox, are driven by good and noble sentiments.

Shabbat Shalom and a tolerable fast,

Rabbi Shneur