By RABBI BARRY COHEN
Why do the Jewish people have holidays devoted to remembering tragedies? What is the benefit to those who are taking part in these observances?
During the summer, we observe the Fast of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av. The Fast happens on the 17th of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, which began this year at sunset of July 6th. This communal fast marks when the armies of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar breached the walls of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, and when the armies of the Roman ruler Titus breached the walls of rebuilt Jerusalem in 70 CE. (Of note the Jerusalem Talmud claims both occurred on the same date; the Babylonian Talmud follows the prophet Jeremiah, who reported that the Babylonians breached the walls on the 9th of Tammuz.)
In this way, the Fast of Tammuz is closely linked with Tisha B’Av/the Ninth of Av. This year, Tisha B’Av begins at sunset on July 26th and ends at sunset on July 27th. What is the significance of Tisha B’Av? According to tradition, on this day both the first Temple and the second Temple were destroyed. (Of note, the 21 days in between the Fast of Tammuz and the 9th of Av are traditionally viewed as days of distress, bein ha’metzarim, “in between the straits.”)
But Tisha B’Av is even more tragic. A litany of horrible events has occurred on this date: The Jews were expelled from England in 1290. The Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. During World War II, the Nazis purposely chose to commit atrocities against the Jewish people on the Ninth of Av, simply as a cruel way of pouring salt into our people’s wounds.
How have we chosen to observe this day of tragedy, the Ninth of Av? One option is to conduct a full fast, no eating or drinking from sundown to sundown. Other traditions include additional self-denial, such as refusing to bathe or shower; not wearing makeup, perfume or cologne; and abstaining from sexual relations.
Some Jews gather in synagogue to study Torah. It is common to read from Lamentations, written by Jeremiah after the destruction of the first Temple. The prophet recounts how the Jews attempted to survive the Babylonian siege and details the leveling of the city. We also read from the book of Job, which details the suffering of an innocent man and how he responded to pain, tragedy and the death of his family.
Observing these holidays are attempts to find a semblance of meaning or purpose in tragedy. If we can discover meaning and purpose through joyous holidays, why not try to do the same through tragic holidays?
In this effort, the Rabbis have shared an intriguing explanation of why God “allowed” the Romans to conquer the Jewish people, destroy the 2nd Temple and ultimately exile us from the Land. A Rabbinic Midrash explains that this tragedy helped preserve the Jewish people. After all, if a people are exclusively concentrated in one geographic location, it is easy to destroy them. However, once the Jews were spread throughout the known world, no single empire would ever be able to defeat them and force them to assimilate and disappear.
I struggle with this Midrash because it teaches that God allowed thousands of men, women and children to perish in order to save the Jewish people. I ask, “couldn’t God have found a less tragic way to achieve the same result?” I only share this Midrash to reveal how resilient the Jewish people have been. Despite having lost our most precious city and most sacred communal location – not once, but twice – we still refused to turn our backs on God.
So how can we in the year 2023 relate to the Fast of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av? Perhaps we continue to observe these holidays because we often learn more from failure than from success. In response to pain, tragedy and suffering, we have an opportunity to grow, mature and become more in tune with our emotions.
Perhaps more of us should observe these summertime holidays because both the Fast of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av shed light not only upon our history, but on how we responded to tragedies and became stronger as a result. We have not learned just to survive. We have learned how to thrive.