What to make of Tisha b'Av?

By: Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman


For many Jews, Tisha b'Av (the ninth day of the month of Av) is an unwelcome interlude in the midst of summer pleasures and respite. As American Jews living in freedom, safety and material comfort, it is difficult to connect with a day designed to immerse us in a collective experience of mourning and grief - one that spans all of Jewish history -across time and space alike. On Tisha b'Av we mourn the destruction of two temples of which we have no personal memory and for most Jews, no true desire to rebuild. We recall other Jewish tragedies that have occurred on this date, such as the expulsion from England in 1290 and the expulsion from Spain in 1492. We remember also, the mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka which began on the eve of Tisha b'Av. On this day we enter into a period of mourning for events that span nearly 2500 years years of persecution, exile, expulsion, and slaughter. Time and space are collapsed as we connect with our ancestors. Their tragedies are our tragedies


Yet, for most post-modern Jews, Tisha b'Av is seen as an observance that reinforces a collective identity of victimization. For many if not most American Jews , Tisha b'Av has been rejected because of its identification with perpetual victimhood. Nevertheless, history provides a lens for understanding the present moment and establishing the vision we strive for. The arc of Jewish history tells a story that has implications for every human being. It reveals essential information for the healing of this fractured world, still seething with baseless hatred and violence. Jewish history tells the story of a people labeled as 'other' and persecuted on this basis. While persecution is not unique to Jewish history, its consistency throughout the western world and across multiple historic periods provides us with a powerful lens for viewing certain aspects of human nature.


What relevance does Tisha b'Av hold for us today?  

It demonstrates and confirms the awesome dangers of demonizing others.  


Recent Jewish history attests to the truly horrific implications of such attitudes. Current world events reveal how easy is the tendency to demonize the 'other'. Tragically we have too many current examples within our own communities and on the world stage. It is our responsibility to not only look outward, but to look inward at how we may contribute to this malady. How do we think about those who are different from ourselves? How do we generalize about Palestinians, Muslims, our Christian neighbors, Jews of different denominations and Jews of no religion?


Traditional Jewish teachings about Tisha b'Av assert that we while we have been victims, we also share in the responsibility for exiling God's presence from the world. The Talmud teaches that the Second Temple was destroyed due to sinat chinam- baseless hatred within the Jewish community. While Jewish tradition has taught that the destruction and exile were acts of Divine retribution, for most people today, the concept that God metes out reward and punishment for our actions no longer resonates. Yet there is an important truth that lies within this teaching. Baseless hatred within a community destroys relationships and eventually causes the destruction of the community itself. In this sense, the Divine Presence is exiled.


Many Jews and others often ask the question: where was God during the Holocaust? To that question one might answer: God was in the hearts of the rescuers; those who did not allow the propaganda of their time and the pressure of external authority to expel God from their hearts. Dr. Eva Fogelman, in her book "Conscience and Courage" describes the qualities of those who resisted Nazi propaganda and coercion and risked their lives to rescue Jews. She interviewed hundreds of rescuers and describes their motivations. She concludes that the majority possessed a strong sense of morality and learned from an early age to think for themselves and tolerate, if not embrace, those considered different from themselves.


Maintaining an awareness of the divine spark that resides within everyone must be an essential goal for our communities, our families, and our systems of education. Our tradition teaches that every human being is created b'tzelem Elohim- in the image of God. Let us reconsider Tisha b'Av as an opportunity to build something new from the ashes of the past- a world wherein we embrace our common humanity while affirming the value of our diversity. And may we begin within our own communities.


Tisha b'Av begins this year on Sat. evening July 25th and ends on Sunday night July 26th. It is observed traditionally as a fast day.





Please join us this Friday July 24th, 7:00PM in celebration of Shabbat at The First Congregational Church of Stockbridge: 4 Main St., Stockbridge

Services followed by a Pot-Luck Vegetarian Dinner.  No tree nuts please. 

Join us for musical inspiration in celebration of the ONE!

Rabba Kaya, Reb Shir Yaakov and Carol Emanuel 



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