Annually, and in many ways daily, we as Jews recall events that befell us as a nation.
Many people, daily, recite a list of “Shesh Zekhirot “(The Six Remembrances). The first of these is the Exodus from Egypt. Embedded to varying degrees in our daily prayers are references to the Korbanot (sacrifices), Jerusalem, Israel, rebuilding the Beit Ha-Mikdash (the Holy Temple) and Geulah (redemption).
The periodic ta’aniyot (fast days) are largely devoted to one aspect or another of national tragedy, more often than not dedicated to the loss of our national sovereignty over the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael) and the destruction of the Ancient Temples in Jerusalem.
The fast of Tisha B’Av (Ninth of Av), an especially difficult fast, is entirely dedicated to the loss of the Batei ha-Mikdash (Holy Temples).
The question you raise, “How are we supposed to feel sad about the destruction of the Temple? It happened so long ago…?” has been asked by the great sages. The overwhelming response is that we as a nation have suffered loss and any restoration that we have experienced is incomplete.
By way of example, at the Pesah (Passover) Seder where we recite “L’Shanah Haba’ah Bi-ru-sha-la-yim” (Next Year in Jerusalem) many today add a word, thus saying; Yerushalayim ha-be-nu-yah (Jerusalem rebuilt or completely built up).
So many of us have had the zekhut (merit) of visiting modern day Israel or going on aliyah.
For this reason, for many, reciting the prayers and fasting, as if nothing has changed with the advent of modern day Zionism, e.g. we now have the vibrant State of Israel and Jerusalem under Jewish sovereignty, has become increasingly challenging.
While I have not seen any real effort to revise the Jewish calendar, eliminating our fast days, I have seen references to celebrating the day of Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) and Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) as real chagim (holy days). Much of this is taken extremely seriously, especially by those who describe themselves as religious Zionists.
The Chief Rabbinate of Israel, under Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog, issued a widely respected and recited “Tefillah l’shelom Medinat Yisrael—Prayer for the Peace of the State of Israel.” It includes the words, “rei-sheet tz’mi-hat ge’u-la-tei-nu” (the first flowering of our deliverance).
There have been wonderful descriptions of the return to Zion and the rebirth of the Jewish nation in its land, in the writings of Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov in his Sefer Ha-Toda’ah—Book of Our Heritage. He wrote of this especially after the tremendous victory in the 1967 Six Day War, and while at his table in his home and with his family, I was privileged to hear him speak of these matters and of his love and devotion to the State of Israel.
Rabbi Shelomo Yosef Zevin wrote of these matters in his masterly work Moadim ba-Halakhah—the Festivals in the Halakhah (Jewish Law).
With the current Jewish trend toward the right, in the direction of fundamentalism, many Jewish congregations no longer recite the Prayer for the Peace of the State of Israel, or recite a modified version of it, or even knowingly avoid mentioning “State of Israel.” Instead, they say “Eretz Yisrael”—the Land of Israel, giving no recognition to the Jewish sovereignty embodied in the “State.”
Additionally, these two aforementioned masterly books were revised in subsequent editions, omitting any references to the State of Israel and the special days devoted to it. I find this regrettable and a revisionism of Jewish history.
Many efforts have been put forth to change the special prayer book of Kinot for the fast of Tisha B’Av. Among the most famous was by the Israeli Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Shelomo Goren and the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Tel Aviv, Rabbi Haim David Halevi. They each wrote prayers which modified and adjusted (softened) the harsh traditional language of the “nachem” prayer recited in the Minha afternoon prayers on the solemn fast day.
Chief Rabbi Shelomo Goren’s prayer was added in as an alternative in the early edition of the most popular British printing of the Kinot prayer book edited by Rabbi Abraham Rosenfeld, known as The Authorised Kinot for the Ninth of Av. The book enjoys widespread appeal throughout the English speaking world.
In some congregations, the rabbinic leadership would simply announce, “We will be reciting the traditional ‘nachem’ prayer and not the alternative version.” Apparently, this did not satisfy some, for sadly, it too dropped the softened alternate version of the “nachem” prayer in later printings.
Chief Rabbi Haim David Halevi presents an in-depth analysis of questions pertaining to fasting and prayer in light of the restoration of Zion in our day, with the establishment of the State of Israel and the return of millions of Jews to their homeland. This appears, together with his suggested adjustment to the ‘nachem’ prayer, in volume two of his hugely popular series known as “Aseh L’kha Rav—Set For Yourself a Teacher.”
I can understand your concern and perplexity in the face of the challenge to preserve ancient Jewish tradition and to accept the reality that so much has changed in our history, especially with the return to Zion and Jewish sovereignty in Medinat Yisrael—the State of Israel, which to our way of thinking is the first flowering of our deliverance.
It has been suggested that one of the central reasons that Jews have both survived and been able to maintain a religion that is ancient and still relevant is because of our ability to remember. Part of Judaism’s power is that we are able to find current meaning in the stories of our past. Tisha B’Av indeed commemorates the destruction of the Temples and the sadness our people felt at the loss of such a central institution in their lives. Yet, the rabbis, over time, essentially turned Tisha B’Av into a day that commemorates all Jewish tragedy. If one can manage only an “intellectual sadness” over the destruction of the Temples, which occurred so long ago, perhaps any number of the more contemporary Jewish tragedies will evoke the emotional sadness that characterizes the Book of Lamentations. However, perhaps more important than any feelings of sadness, Tisha B’Av and its accompanying customs, remind us to remember our past, to recall what our people have endured to reach this point in our history, to appreciate the gift of our heritage and to refocus on the importance of our relationship with God. While sadness may be the mode of the day, the goal is most likely to remember.
This is a fascinating question because, ironically, the question presupposes the answer. The very fact that you are asking it is part of the very issue of Tisha B'Av. Let me explain.
In the past, living outside the Land of Israel made you part of the Diaspora. It was seen as a punishment by God in the eyes of the Rabbis. Our sins took out of the Land and only through redemption - i.e., being in God's favor - could we go back to the Land and end the Galut - the exile or Diaspora from the Land. For two thousand years, Jews prayed for the return to the Land and, still today, the traditional prayerbook has those self-same prayers.
But in reality even the traditional Jew does not see the Exile/Diaspora as a punishment. If they did, they would hop on a plane and simply move back to the reestablished State of Israel to live the 'redeemed' life. The fact that there is such a vibrant traditional community outside the Land testifies that, in reality, even those who pray to go back to the Land do not mean it literally.
Now, as I write these words, it is erev Tisha B'Av and I am a faculty member at a Reform summer camp in the Poconos. In years past, true to early Reform practice, Tisha B'Av was not observed in any fashion because American Jews simply did not see themselves as being punished by God and living in America was in no sense a Diaspora. But today, things are a bit different and it goes to your question.
Today, we are not struggling with Tisha B'Av and we are not dismissing it. But its meaning is very different than what tradition tells us its simple meaning is. Today the commemoration is about history and hope: the history of our people and its sufferings throughout the ages and the hope of a better tomorrow for all Jews and, indeed, for all people.
The issue of the Exodus is a bit different. We commemorate - actually celebrate - that because it is not about suffering. It is about freedom and as we are bidden to 'remember the oppressed for you were oppressed in the land of Egypt' the festival of Pesach is a unique Jewish festival but is overflowing with contemporary meaning.
Merely because the holiday is ancient is not a reason to dismiss it. Its teachings are universal even though its original intent and simple meaning will change as our reality changes.
Tisha B'Av remains real because our suffering is real. The Exodus story is real because freedom is still a distant dream for so many. Those lessons, not matter how old they are, are truly timeless and that is why, tonight, as the sun goes down and Tisha B'Av descends, I will reflect on where we have come from and shed a tear.
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