TISH B'AV 2021
Tisha B’Av, which begins on sundown on Saturday the 17th, and ends on Sunday evening on the 18th, is remembered as the saddest day in Jewish history. The ninth of Av is a full day of fasting and mourning. Tisha B’Av saw the final defeat of Bar Kokhba‘s rebellion against the Romans and the razing of Jerusalem by the Romans. The edict of King Edward I forcing the Jews of England to leave the country. On the ninth of Av in 1290, the Jews were expelled from Spain on that day in 1492, and World War I broke out in 1914 that set the stage for the Holocaust.
The ancient rabbinic sages held that the ninth of Av was preordained to be a day of tragedy. The Talmud states that God marked this day for tragedy because of the incident in Numbers, 13-14 that took place in the wilderness on this day. Moses had sent spies to scout the Promised Land, and based on their frightened report, the people wept at the prospect of entering such a formidable land full of giants. God declared to them, “You wept without cause; I will therefore make this an eternal day of mourning for you.” The Talmudic tractate Taanit states that God then decreed that on the ninth of Av the Temple would be destroyed and Israel would go into exile.
As Tisha B’Av, traditional observances of— fasting, being unable to sit anywhere except on the ground, not washing, not greeting other people, not wearing fresh clothes for the whole week before — are closer to the experience of being a refugee than to being a mourner. It is thought that when the Temple was destroyed, the people were thrown into exile. Jerusalem became a war zone and its people became refugees, forced to risk their lives to escape violence, famine, and devastation. The suffering was tremendous — “like deer, not finding a place to graze, walking without strength before a pursuer,” in the words of the Book of Lamentations.
The author(s) of Lamentations (Eicha in Hebrew), the biblical text traditionally read on Tisha B’Av, believed that what happened to the Jewish people was the result of divine judgment. But even though the book sounds like it’s about God punishing us, the question our ancestors faced was not whether the disaster could be reconciled with God’s goodness. Rather, the question was whether God still cared about them. Choosing a God that cared enough to punish them was better than choosing a God that didn’t care at all. But the anxiety that maybe God doesn’t care is also woven throughout Eicha.
In every chapter, the poet beseeches God to pay attention, Lamentations 1:9 and 2:20, and in the very last verse, the poet wonders if God has rejected us forever. This idea that exile and homelessness were punishment for our sins is not a native thought to Jews. But our ancients were not as far from us as we think.
In Lamentations itself, most of the chapters describe the punishment God inflicted as excessive and abusive. Only in chapter 3 is Zion’s destruction consistently described as fair and just. The real perspective is summed up in verse 2:13: “What can I compare to you, daughter Jerusalem, that I may comfort you?” The poet is willing to say anything that will enable the people to find meaning and hope in the face of exile.
Finally, there is another way to understand the destruction of Jerusalem and the dispersion of its people. According to the prophet Jeremiah, the traditional author of Lamentations, the reason for the Babylonian exile was that the people did not let the land rest every seven years, as is biblically mandated in Chronicles II 36:21.
Since 490 years had passed without a sabbatical year, Israel had to go into exile for 70 years — one year for each sabbatical that was missed. The foreigner, the convert) and the poor determines whether we have the right to remain in the land.
All of these issues and more can become intertwined with the experience of Lamentations and the story of Jerusalem’s destruction. Reading Lamentations is an invitation to remember what it means to be a refugee, and to think about how we can live more conscious of our coming King who will inhabit all the earth, and justice and righteousness will again engulf the world.