Followers of this column realize by now that there are several times each year when I engage in what best can be described as an annual rant. Welcome to the annual rant of summer.
What is it that makes us Jews? Is it our religion? There are secular Jews, atheistic Jews, cultural Jews. Religion is part of what we are, but it is not all of what we are.
Is it our culture? What culture? Ours is the most multicultural culture of all. African Jews, Asian Jews, European Jews, Spanish-American Jews — we are a people spread out across the four corners of the globe and we have assimilated many of the cultural motifs of the countries we have called home.
It is not enough, for example, to say you love Jewish music. Which Jewish music? The one that sounds like a Spanish love song, or an Arabic folk tune? The one that sounds like a Russian ballad, or a Greek dance? Or American rock? Arguably the most genuine and authentic Jewish music that exists is the Gregorian chant, reputed to be derived from the music of the Temple itself — and no one would ever consider a Gregorian chant Jewish.
What makes us Jews is memory. Nearly everything we do is related to memory.
And yet, when the sun goes down at 8:” p.m. Monday, July ‘3, and a new Jewish day begins, our memory will be garbled and unclear. The day that begins at sundown July ‘3 is unlike any other day on the Jewish calendar. No other day is as packed with defining events. No other day is as infused with memory.
And yet, for an overwhelming number of Jews, this is a day that goes by each year without their even realizing that it came and went.
The history of this day begins with an event that took place approximately 3,500 years ago. The Israelites had just heard the report of the men sent by Moses to scout the land of Canaan and were convinced that God had brought them out of Egypt only to destroy them. And so, the Torah tells us, "The people wept that night."
The Torah does not tell us what night that was, but by following the chronology laid out in the Torah, it was what we today call Tisha B’Av, the Ninth Day of Av. In those days, it would have been referred to as "the ninth day of the fifth month."
On this day in that year, God decreed that the generation of the Exodus would all die out in the desert. With the gift of hindsight, the Sages of blessed memory concluded that God must have issued another decree that day, as well: "Because you, Israel, cried for no reason on this day, I, God, will see to it that you have reason to cry on this day forever after."
And so it was. According to the book of Jeremiah, it was on the Ninth of Av in the year 586 BCE that Babylonian forces set fire to the First Temple. By the end of the next day, the Temple was no more.
In the year 70 C.E., according to a host of religious and historical sources, Roman forces set fire to the Second Temple. By the next day, it, too, was no more.
In the year 135 C.E., on the Ninth Day of Av, the Judean revolt against Rome reportedly came to a crushing end, leading to the execution of an entire generation of religious leaders and scholars, including Rabbi Akiva.
On Aug. ‘, 149’, one of the oldest and most productive diaspora communities until then came to an end with the departure from Spain of the last of its expelled Jews. Aug. ‘, 149’, was Tisha B’Av.
On Aug. 1, 1914, Germany declared war on Russia. World War I had begun. It would set into motion events that would lead to the creation of the Soviet Union, which would wage a 75-year campaign to destroy everything Jewish within its borders. The war would end in the creation of a peace so debilitating to Germany that it would lead to Adolf Hitler and the Shoah. It would allow Britain to play its duplicitous games in the Middle East, sowing the seeds for nearly eight decades’ worth of bloody conflict between Arab and Jews. Aug. 1, 1914, was Tisha B’Av.
This is the day we toss aside.
Now, some people say. "We don’t need Tisha B’Av anymore; it’s not relevant anymore; it belongs to the past." Chanukah belongs to the past, but we celebrate it. Purim belongs to the past, but we celebrate it. Pesach belongs to the distant past, but we celebrate it. Why do we ignore Tisha B’Av?
Again, there are some who would say: "Chanukah, Purim, Pesach — these are fun days, but Tisha B’Av is the ultimate downer. Here we are in the middle of the summer and everyone is out to have fun. Why ruin it by remembering so many tragedies?"
The answer is that Tisha B’Av is not now nor ever has been about tragedy. Tisha B’Av is about triumph.
We are here today, 6′ years after the destruction of European Jewry, revived and alive. Sixty-two years after we should have been dead and buried, we live in an age that is the most scholarly productive in Jewish history. Sixty-two years after Six million Jews died because no state would have them, the reborn Jewish state is awash in entire communities of endangered Jews it rescued. Sixty-two years after the doors of the world shut in our faces, there are few doors left that we cannot open.
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.
That is the real memory of Tisha B’Av.
And the greatest tragedy of Tisha B’Av is that so many of us refuse to remember 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.
Tisha B’Av is part of who and what we are.
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of the Conservative synagogue Temple Israel Community Center in Cliffside Park and an instructor in the UJA-Federation-sponsored Florence Melton Adult Mini-School of the Hebrew University. He is the editor of Judaism: A Journal of Jewish Life and Thought.