Honest Abe, Shinzo Abe, and Tishah b’Ab

Honest Abe, Shinzo Abe, and Tishah b’Ab

In their discussion of the events surrounding Tishah b’Av, the Sages observe: “Good fortune is fated to recur on dates with a history of good fortune, and tragedy is fated to recur on days with a tragic history” (Taanit 29A).  According to the Mishnah (Taanit 4:6), five disasters befell the Jewish people on the Ninth of Av, leading to the observance of that date as a dark and somber fast: God’s punished Israel with 40 years of wandering in the wilderness; both the First and Second Temples were destroyed; the city of Beitar was captured; Jerusalem was plowed up as a sign it was never to be rebuilt.

To this history of recurrent calamity, subsequent disasters on or around the Ninth of Av may be added: the onset of the First Crusade in 1096; the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290; the expulsion of Jews from France in 1306; the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492; the beginning of World War I in 1914; approval of the Nazi Final Solution in 1941; the deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka in 1942; the bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires in 1994.

This year, the Ninth of Av falls on Saturday, August 6. (In deference to Shabbat, the actual fast is postponed to Sunday.)  The painful history of August 6 adds to the poignancy of our Tishah b’Av observance, and reinforces the rabbis’ dictum concerning fateful dates.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared August 6 a day of prayer and reflection, to acknowledge the “sacrifices of life, limb, health, and liberty, incurred by brave, loyal, and patriotic citizens” in the course of the Civil War. “Domestic affliction in every part of the country follows in the train of these fearful bereavements,” he said. Lincoln viewed this national exercise in explicitly religious terms, urging “the people of the United States to assemble on that occasion in their customary places of worship, and in the forms approved by their own consciences render the homage due to the Divine” and to “invoke the influence of his Holy Spirit to subdue the anger which has produced and so long sustained a needless and cruel rebellion….”

That is:

“Let us lift up our hearts and our hands to God in heaven: We have transgressed and rebelled, and You have not forgiven” (Lamentations 3:41-42).

In the further spirit of Tishah b’Av, Lincoln’s last words before his assassination, as reported by the widowed Mary Todd Lincoln, were of his desire to visit Jerusalem. The august memorial to Lincoln in Washington was a response to the national calamity that was his assassination; it provided a bereaved citizenry with its own “Beit Mikdash.” Inscribed on the wall of the memorial, over the heroic statue of a pensive, cloaked, seated Lincoln, is this epitaph: “In this Temple as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.”

As we mourn the burning and destruction of the Holy Temple and the devastation of Jerusalem this Tishah b’Av, let us also recall that it was on August 6, 1945 that the atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima, killing 20,000 Japanese soldiers and as many as 126,000 civilians. “Alas! Lonely sat the city once teeming with people. She that was great among the nations became like a widow; the princess among states was left bereft” (Lamentations 1:1).

Seven years ago, I was in Hiroshima on the 70th anniversary of the bombing.  Emotions ran deep. The bitter grief attending this year’s commemoration of the 1945 bombing will be compounded for many in Japan by the recent assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe precisely 30 days earlier.  Tishah b’Av and the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing are the fallen statesman’s “shloshim.”  Speaking in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid paid tribute to Abe as “a true friend of Israel, who brought about flourishing and prosperous relations between Israel and Japan.”

History binds Shinzo Abe to Abraham Lincoln through their shared tragic demise: “You have clothed yourself in anger and pursued us. You have slain without pity!” (Lamentations 3:43).

Tishah b’Av is a day both to bewail the losses of history and to summon the faith, hope, and strength to move beyond them.  This is, ultimately, the meaning of the tradition that the Messiah will be (or already was!) born on Tishah b’Av (see Eichah Rabbah 1:51; Yerushalmi Berachot 2:4). Shinzo Abe gave expression to this wisdom: “It is my belief that politicians should not be stepping into the realm of history. Rather, politicians should be taking a future-oriented perspective.”

Abraham Lincoln offers this related counsel: “The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.” Also often attributed to Lincoln (alas, with little historical foundation) is the apt observation that “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

The future is very much in our hands. If, indeed, “good fortune is fated to recur on dates with a history of good fortune, and tragedy is fated to recur on days with a tragic history,” then – even as we mourn – let us pledge this Tishah b’Av (this Shabbat, August 6) to fill each day ahead with faith, hope, strength, and blessing.

In this still emerging future, may we know no further sorrow.

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