The Book of Deuteronomy begins with Moses recounting how the people in the wilderness rebelled and missed the first opportunity to enter the Land. Rebelling in fear of the unknown and nostalgic for Egypt, they are condemned to forty years of wandering, until the next generation has the opportunity to step forward where their predecessors failed.
Parashat D’varim always falls on Shabbat Hazon, the Shabbat immediately preceding Tisha B’Av (or on this year, on the actual ninth of Av, while the fast is postponed to Saturday night and Sunday). The haftarah, most of which is traditionally recited in the mournful trope of Lamentations, relates the hazon (vision) of Isaiah, the dreadful prophecy of God’s turning away from the people as their sinfulness overcomes their merit. Read together, we are left with a sense of distance, standing outside the Land, outside the City, outside of God’s mercy.
In my experience, the observance of Tisha B’Av has suffered from neglect, some of it principled. Should we not celebrate the renaissance of the Jewish people in its land, I hear it said, rather than forever mourn its destruction?
I have always felt strongly that we should observe Tisha B’Av faithfully in the traditional way precisely because of the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land. Only an appreciation of the distance through history that has kept the Jewish people from the Land of Israel can help us fully celebrate the reality of Israel today.
Study after study — most recently the comprehensive Pew report — has shown how new generations of American Jews born after Israel was established do not hold the State of Israel as a significant signpost of their Jewish identity. Israel’s existence is taken for granted. American Jews today respond to Israel’s politics, not to the question of its existence. While political engagement is all well and good, we need to strengthen our historical perspective, appreciate the miracle that the very existence of Israel represents. Tisha B’Av helps me do that.
By crying over the destruction of Jerusalem, I see the Jerusalem of today through the perspective of a long vision.
Isaiah’s vision matches the tone of Lamentations in theology as well as cantillation. The people understood the calamity of Jerusalem’s destruction as a result of their sinfulness. So we fast on Tisha B’Av to demonstrate to God our purity and renunciation of sin, just as we do on Yom Kippur. Fasting is not a sign of mourning in Jewish tradition. We all know that at a shiva house we eat a lot as eating brings consolation. Fasting is a response to sinfulness.
This classic theology that is all over the Tisha B’Av observance has been challenged in the aftermath of the Shoah. Most theologians today cannot accept that God could bear any responsibility for genocide. This represents the second challenge to Tisha B’Av: How can we associate historical suffering with divine punishment if we no longer hold God responsible for historical calamities?
My response here is the same as my response to the first challenge: Only by understanding the experience of our ancestors can we fully appreciate where we have come today. Although I do not credit the God of Israel with the successes of Nebuchadnezzar and then Titus over Jerusalem and the fall of the first and second temples, I do appreciate the theological and poetic responses of my ancestors. I need to cry with them, to shake with them in fear of God’s wrath, in order to appreciate what it must have felt like to see God’s house burn, and the city forsaken. Only after seeing through their eyes can I then see through my own.
In the parashah, Moses brings the narrative up to the second command to enter the Land given to the new generation. They will go in where their ancestors stayed without. Where even Moses will not go. We are in that assembly. We are looking in as the new Jewish state continues to grow. We have the future of multiple paths before us. Moses does not lead the new generation. But he gives them the benefit of what came before. That legacy is there for us to fortify ourselves with, both through Shabbat Devarim and Hazon, and Tisha B’Av.