What Happened, and When? – Tisha B’Av 5775

The fast of the Ninth of Av, Tishah B’Av, is the most famous and the most stringent of all the fasts relating to the destruction of the Holy Temple and the Exile. Yet even before the first destruction and exile by the Babylonians in 421 B.C.E., the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av was earmarked for tragedy.

The very first tragedy to occur on this day took place soon after the Exodus from Egypt. Spies had been sent to the Land of Israel, in preparation for its conquest.  When the spies returned with a discouraging report, the men lost hope (though not the women) of ever reaching the Holy Land.  That first Tishah 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 in 70 C.E. the Romans destroyed the Second Temple; brutally put down the Bar Kochba revolt; slaughtered 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. Spiritually, they signified that the Jewish people had alienated themselves from G-d: this distance is acutely felt and powers our yearning to return to the devotion of former years. In physical terms, these two events were the ultimate cause of all the pogroms, Inquisitions, jihads, expulsions and suffering of our people for more than 2,000 years.

Throughout Jewish history, the Ninth of Av has recurred as a day of calamity.  The Jews were expelled from England on Tishah B’Av, 1290, and the Spanish Inquisition culminated in the expulsion of the Jews from Spain on Tishah B’Av, 1492. Germany declared war on Russia on Tishah B’Av in 1914, precipitating the First World War, which had tragic repercussions on the Jews of Europe and also ultimately led to the Second World War and the Holocaust.

Great Jewish scholars and poets throughout the centuries composed Kinot, elegies that lament these and other tragedies. Recent scholars have written Kinot about the Holocaust, adding further to this large collection of poems and prayers. Traditionally, we recite these Kinot on Tishah B’Av while sitting in an attitude of mourning, on low benches or the floor.

Despite the dreadful, heartbreaking nature of Tishah B’Av, an element of happiness is concealed within it.  Tishah B’Av is called a mo’ed, meaning festival, and certain prayers associated with sadness are, in fact, not said on this day.  What is the source of the joy that lightens our mourning on Tishah B’Av?  Some commentaries explain that it springs from the knowledge that eventually, at the time of the Redemption, Tishah B’Av and the other fast days will become festivals and times of joy, as Zechariah prophesied:

The fast of the fourth [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][i.e. in the fourth month, the Seventeenth of Tamuz], the fast of the fifth, [the Ninth of Av] the fast of the seventh [the Fast of Gedaliah] and the fast of the tenth [the Tenth of Tevet] will be to the House of Judah for joy and for gladness and as happy festivals.

The Talmud relates the following incident that occurred approximately fifty years 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 [the first three] 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 the ultimate Redemption] of Zechariah is contingent upon the prophecy [of destruction] of Uriah. 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.

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 Tishah 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 Tishah 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.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

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