For most of us, Tishah B’Av and its lead-up period are observances we ignore, toss aside, treat with irreverence. For too many of us, it is a period that goes by each year without our realizing it. Even if we do, we have no qualms about ignoring it.
The “cheerless” nature of this period, of course, is part of the problem. From the 17th of Tammuz through the Ninth of Av, the summer is in full bloom. This is hardly a time to be engaged in deep mourning.
And so an extremely important set of observances goes unobserved or only casually so by a majority of Jews.
What is it that makes us Jews? It could not be our religion, because both Moslems and Christians pray to the same God as we do, although not in the same way, so we are no longer unique in our religious beliefs. Even if we were, however, it would not matter, because you do not have to be “religious” to be Jewish. Religion is part of what we are, but it is not all of what we are.
Our culture also did not make us Jews, because ours is perhaps the most multicultural culture of all. African Jews, Asian Jews, European Jews, Spanish-American Jews – we are a people spread out across the world, and we have assimilated many cultural motifs.
What makes us Jews is memory.
We observe Shabbat each week to remind the world that God is Creator of all there is, and to remind ourselves that He freed us from Egypt.
We wear shawls with macramed fringes because a tallit reminds us, as t’fillin are meant to do, that we once stood before Sinai and made a deal with God.
We are the people of memory. Where Tishah B’Av is concerned, however, our memory is garbled and unclear. And yet there is no other day on the Jewish calendar that is so infused with memory.
It was on the Ninth of Av in 586 B.C.E. that the Babylonians set fire to the First Temple.
In 70 C.E., Roman forces set fire to the second one.
In 135 C.E., the Judean revolt against Rome reportedly came to a crushing end with the fall of Betar, the death of Bar Kochbah, and the subsequent executions of nearly an entire generation of religious leaders and scholars, including Rabbi Akiva.
On Tishah B’Av in 1492, what was arguably the greatest diaspora community the world had ever known until then came to an end with the departure from Spain of the last of its expelled Jews. (Curiously, that was also the day Christopher Columbus was to set sail on the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. Over the objections of his sponsors, he insisted on delaying the voyage for a full day. That, however, is for a future column to explore.)
On Tishah B’Av in 1914, Germany declared war on Russia – a war that would end with the sowing of the seeds that would burst forth as the Shoah.
This is the day we toss aside.
Now, some people say, “We don’t need Tishah B’Av anymore; we don’t need to mark Jewish tragedy.”
Tishah B’Av is not now nor ever has been about tragedy. Tishah B’Av is about triumph.
No generation of Jews should know this better than this generation. We are here today, 68 years after the Shoah’s end, revived and alive.
Tishah B’Av is one day we must never ignore.
The point, however, is not that the tragedies happened (far more than listed here), but that we are still here to be reminded of them. We are still here. No other day on the Jewish calendar better exemplifies the link between God and Israel. No other day better proves that God’s promise to Israel, His covenant with us, is indeed everlasting and irreversible.
Keeping the faith: One religious perspective on issues of the day That is the true memory of Tishah B’Av.
And the greatest tragedy of Tishah B’Av is not that both Temples were destroyed on this day, or that Betar fell, or that the seeds of the Shoah were planted. No, the greatest tragedy to occur on this day is that most of us choose not to remember this day.
Please, do not forget this day. Do not toss into the dustbin of disuse this most potent vehicle for reaffirming that tragedies are of the moment, but the Jewish people are forever.
[Editor’s note: This is an edited version of a column frequently requested by readers.]