The Ninth of Av
The fast of the Ninth of Av, Tisha B’Av, is the most famous and the most stringent of all the fasts relating to the destruction of the Temple and the Exile. The very first tragedy to occur on this day took place soon after the Exodus from Egypt. The Jewish people sent spies to the Land of Israel, in preparation for its conquest. When the spies returned with a discouraging report, the men lost hope of ever reaching the Holy Land. That first Tisha B’Av night, they cried in despair, thereby established the character of that date for the rest of history. The Babylonians destroyed the First Temple on the Ninth of Av. On the same date, the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, brutally put down the Bar Kochba revolt by slaughtering the inhabitants of Betar and ploughed over the site of the Temple. The destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jewish people from their land were, without doubt, the greatest tragedies in Jewish history. These two events were the ultimate cause of all the pogroms, inquisitions, jihads, expulsions and suffering of our people over the past 2,000 years.
Throughout Jewish history, the Ninth of Av has recurred as a day of tragedy. The Jews were expelled from England on Tisha B’Av, 1290, and the Spanish Inquisition culminated in the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in Tisha B’Av, 1492. Germany declared war on Russia on Tisha B’Av in 1914, precipitating the First World War, which ultimately led to the Second World War and the Holocaust. Great scholars and poets throughout the centuries composed Kinot, elegies (mournful poems) that lament these and other tragedies. Recent scholars have written Kinot about the Holocaust, adding further to this tragically large collection of poems and prayers. Traditionally we recite these Kinot on Tisha B’Av while sitting in an attitude of mourning, on low benches or the floor.
Despite the dreadful, heartbreaking nature of Tisha B’Av, an element of happiness is concealed within it. Tisha B’Av is called a mo’ed, meaning festival, and certain prayers associated with sadness that are omitted on happy occasions are, in fact, not said on this day. What is the source of the joy that lightens our mourning on Tisha B’Av? Some commentaries explain that it springs from the knowledge that eventually, at the time of the redemption, Tisha B’Av and the other fast days will become festivals and times of joy, as Zechariah prophesied:
The fast of the fourth [month], the fast of the fifth, the fast of the seventh and the fast of the tenth will be to the House of Judah for joy and for gladness and as happy festivals.
The Talmud relates the following incident which occurred soon after the destruction of the Temple:
[Rabbi Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azaria, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akivah] were walking to Jerusalem… At the Temple Mount they saw a fox leaving the ruins of the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctuary of the Temple. They cried and Rabbi Akivah laughed. They asked, “Why are you laughing?” He asked them, “Why are you crying?” They answered, “The place about which it is written, ‘any alien [non-Cohen] who approaches shall die,’ now has foxes walking in it! Shouldn’t we cry?” He said to them, “That is why I am laughing… The prophecy of Zechariah [of redemption] is contingent upon the prophecy of Uriah [of destruction]. Regarding Uriah it is written, ‘And, therefore, because of you, Zion shall be plowed like a field.’ In Zechariah it is written, ‘The old men and women will return and sit in the streets of Jerusalem…’ Now that the prophecy of Uriah has been fulfilled, we know that the prophecy of Zechariah will also be realized…” They said to him, “Akivah, you have comforted us! Akivah, you have comforted us!”
Rabbi Akivah saw that destruction was only a prelude to redemption. Just as the plowing of a field prepares it for planting, so the plowing of Jerusalem was a preparation for planting the seeds of redemption. To better understand Rabbi Akivah’s perspective let us imagine the case of an alcoholic who continuously denied that he had a problem and blamed every mishap and mistake on others. After months of warnings, he was dismissed from his job. He arrived home to find a note from his wife that she had left him and taken the children with her. The bank manager phoned to inform him that they were foreclosing on his mortgage and were also repossessing his car. In a deep depression, he sat down to watch television and was interrupted by a knock on the door — the final blow had arrived, a technician had come to disconnect his cable. On one black day, he lost his family, his income, his house and his car. All these events occurring on the same day finally forced him to recognize the connection between them and to acknowledge that his alcoholism was the cause of these tragedies.
As a result he checked into a rehabilitation clinic, dried out, sobered up and came out a new man. He got his job back, made his car and mortgage payments and showed his wife that he had really changed. She returned home with the children, the cable was reconnected and they lived happily ever after. Will this man look at the day he was fired as a day of misfortune or as the luckiest day of his life? If, because of that day, his life changed dramatically for the better and he found the happiness that had eluded him until then, he will celebrate that date every year as a festival. This may be a metaphorical meaning of the statement that “the Messiah was born on the day of the Temple’s destruction” — the seeds of the redemption already existed at the time of destruction.
In the future, when the Jewish people achieve full spiritual rehabilitation we will look back on Tisha B’Av with appreciation. We will understand that if not for the incredible Divine Providence manifested on that day throughout history, we might have shrugged off every misfortune as “bad luck.” It is for this reason that Tisha B’Av is called a “festival.” Only someone with the insight of Rabbi Akivah was able to perceive the light even in the midst of destruction; for most of us this is possible only with hindsight.
Another explanation for Rabbi Akivah’s laughter is suggested by Rabbi Sa’adiah Gaon, a Tenth Century Jewish philosopher. He explains that all laughter is caused by the soul gaining a correct perception of reality. Truth shows us the absurdity of our previous false perception and the soul reacts with joy, which is manifested in laughter. Rabbi Akivah, had a deeper perception of reality than others and therefore he was always in a state of happiness, and was able to laugh even when foxes ran in the Holy of Holies. His acute perception of reality allowed him to immediately see the true message of hope in the very event that caused his colleagues to mourn.