So Much More Than a Fast Day

Out of sight, out of mind. Sometimes. Jewish life is so directly connected to the Jewish calendar, that we too often do not internalize the significance of a holiday – which itself usually commemorates an historical event – unless we celebrate it with family or the larger community. Summertime is a wonderful break from our routine – school gives way to camp, and families hit the road or the skies for memory-making vacations. However, for many in the community, even those integrally connected to their synagogue – or their children to Day School or afterschool Hebrew School – the break from the year’s routine means that they’re disconnected to the one summertime “holiday” on our calendar – Tisha b’Av. Though it’s already in our calendrical rear-view mirror, here are a few thoughts about this complicated, but still – I believe – important day in the Jewish year.

As someone who stubbornly insists that history is the most important subject (apologies to all the physicists and mathematicians and English Lit teachers – not to mention the choir directors, coaches, Hebrew instructors and Mishna teachers out there), Tisha b’Av is even more indispensable than our other history-laden chagim. Embedded within it is our connection to The Temple (the capital-T Temple in Jerusalem), which in turn is a conduit to our relationship with Gd, with our social structure, with our customs and Traditions. The Ninth of Av is also a direct line to our national sovereignty and to its loss; to the degradation forced upon us due to our centuries of powerlessness; and to the challenge of re-emerging as a sovereign nation, with our own police and armed forces and judiciary. All that and more is encapsulated in this one day during the summer.   

Oasis students will (and all of us should) be familiar with the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of Tisha b’Av – the customs associated with “the three weeks” leading up to the day; the poignancy of Eicha (the book of Lamentations, which is read on Tisha b’Av); and the history surrounding the destructions of the Temple. From the traditional perspective of Torah study, this would be the “p’shat” – the surface meaning. Important, essential – but in the end, just the first layer of understanding.

What we intend for our students – and something to which we should all aspire – is to go further, to ask more than when do we fast, but why we fast. To know that the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians and subsequently by the Romans is important; but we should – and our teens should – ask, did our ancestors have a hand in their own demise?

Many know the phrase “sinat chinam” – usually translated as “baseless hatred,” the internecine rivalry between Jew and Jew that helped to bring about the Second Exile. A deeper dive into Tisha b’Av will encourage our students to grapple with the question, Is there sinat chinam today – and are we doing anything about it? Perhaps more positively, is there ahavat chinam: is there abiding love – and acceptance, and understanding, and embracing of our brothers and sisters, even when we disagree with each other? Especially when we disagree with each other?

One could make the case – and it seems like I’m doing it right now – that this one day represents the heart and soul, the history and the challenge of Judaism. Then again – spoiler alert – an enterprising student could write an exceptional paper on how every holiday on our calendar embodies the totality of Jewish thought and Jewish history. 

Tisha b’Av presents us with a modern conundrum: We commemorate the destruction of not only our Temple, but the loss of our sovereignty – yet we do this during the Third Commonwealth, when Jews have returned to their ancestral home. As educators, we walk a tightrope between ensuring that our students know and understand the challenges of our history, while we are mindful of not slipping into a glorification of victimhood. Reciting the litany of pogroms and persecutions and expulsions will not lead to an embrace of Judaism; at best, it builds a defensive culture, swaddled in our own xenophobia. “They forbade us to observe Shabbat” will never compare with an enthusiastic embrace of the beauty of Shabbat. Learning – and becoming (justifiably) angry – at being exiled from Jerusalem is nothing compared to understanding the excitement of building a society steeped in authentic Jewish values, articulated in Jewish language, right in the cradle of Jewish civilization. 

We observe this day in part because of what happened in 586 BCE (before the “common era”) and in 70 CE (of the “common era”). At the same time, our goal and our challenge is to make the day vital and relevant for those Jews living in 2022 – and beyond. 

שבת שלום – Shabbat shalom, Jerry

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