I vividly remember walking into the sanctuary of a synagogue on Tish Be’Av night, upon hearing a horrible sound. Looking at the source of the sound, I saw a fully grown man, laying down on a thin mattress on the floor. He was not crying; he was sobbing. So powerfully was he crying that his entire body was moving back and forth, as if in a seizure. It shocked me. I knew that today, we were mourning the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash– two thousand years ago. The way this man was crying made it seem like something terrible was happening right now. What was making him so sad?
The Talmud (Bava Batra 60b) relays the following account, an account portraying just quite how serious the issue at hand is:
“When the Temple was destroyed, there multiplied in Israel those who separated themselves from eating meat and drinking wine. Rabbi Yehoshua addressed them.
He said to them: My children, why are you not eating meat, and why are you not drinking wine?
They said to him: How can we eat meat, which we would offer sacrifices on the altar, and now is desolate? How can we drink wine, which was poured out on altar, and now is desolate?
He said to them: If so, we shouldn’t eat bread, for grain offerings have ceased.
[They responded] we can eat produce.
[Rabbi Yehoshua said]: We should not eat produce, for the first fruits offering has ceased.
[They responded]: We can eat other fruits.
[Rabbi Yehoshua said]: We should not drink water, for the water libations have ceased.
They were silent.
He said to them: My children, come hear and I will say to you: It is not possible to not mourn at all, for the decree has already been decreed. But it is also impossible to mourn too much, for we do not decree a law on the community that most of the community cannot live with…Rather this is what the sages said: A person plasters his house with plaster, but he leaves a little bit unfinished…A person makes all the needs of his meal, but he leaves a little bit out…. A woman makes all of her jewelry, but she leaves a little bit off…As it says, “If I forget you Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten, If I don’t remember you, let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth. If I do not set Jerusalem at the head of my celebration.”
Living in the generation of destruction, many felt religious expression was no longer possible. After all, the Temple in Jerusalem epitomized religious ritual; without it, what was left?
However, the sense of loss was not just a ritual one; it was a sense of impending doom. At this point, there over one hundred thousand Jews were killed, and more than one hundred thousand taken as slaves to Rome. Religious observance of any kind, including the observance of the Sabbath, circumcision, the study of Torah, and other sacrosanct aspects of Jewish life were made illegal. Anyone caught doing any of these can be put to death immediately. Heavy taxes imposed on the Jews who remained in Israel and the economy was not the most competitive one. It did seem like the end. This is the only way to understand the Talmudic statement that follows:
“Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha said: From the day that the evil empire[Rome], which makes evil and harsh decrees against us, took over, and forces us to stop learning Torah and observing commandments, and does not allow us to celebrate the week of the son[circumcision], it would make sense for [the rabbis] to decree that we should not marry women and have children, and the descendants of Abraham would desist on their own. [But since we cannot do this] leave Israel alone, better they act without intention than with intention.”
Rabbi Yishmael Ben Elisha, who served as the high priest at the tail end of the second Temple, saw its destruction and felt the persecution, thought it was time for national suicide.
He sincerely believed that all Jews would either be killed or be sent as slaves to Rome. Having children at this time made no sense to him. Why raise Jewish children who would never be able to live as Jews or who would be taken to Rome as slaves?!
The destruction of the Temple came to symbolize not only the destruction of ritual in Jerusalem but the destruction of the entirety of Jewish identity. Mourning that Temple, came to mean hope in the restoration of that very same identity.
In the early 1800s, it suddenly became difficult to observe Tisha Be’Av, it started in Germany of all places. Young Jews felt an increasing difficulty mourning on Tisha Be’Av. Accultured, assimilated, and enjoyed good lives, young Jews in Germany felt it was difficult to mourn a Temple which was in a land they no longer saw as their own. Rabbi Samson Hirsch, addresses these young people and tells them that if indeed Tisha Be’Av marks an event of the past, of the loss of a foregone form of ritual, there is indeed no reason for any meaningful mourning. Indeed we can truly move beyond the past, and anticipate our collective loss, but that is not what Tisha Be’Av is about.
Tisha Be’av is about recognizing we have a lost present and a potential future. It is the recognition that what we lost is impacting us today, more than yesterday. Crying on Tisha Be’Av is a wake-up call for us, a reminder that we are missing something. Today. Now. Crying on Tisha Be’Av is the recognition that worshiping God in any way that is less than at its fullest, is missing something. It recognizes our deep dissatisfaction with constant dispersion and persecution. Crying today means waking ourselves up to being able to live up to a better potential, believing that the world can be better than it is today.
As we approach Tisha Be’Av let us cry ourselves awake. Let us remind ourselves not to be content with the status quo. We must make sure not to accept the rampant antisemitism we live with, the way Jews are treated differently than others, our spiritual distance from Hashem, our inability to fulfill all the mitzvot the way the Torah wants us to fulfill them, and the lack of Hashem’s open and clear presence in this world. As we pray on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur:” our father our King, reign over the whole world with your glory, and be uplifted above the whole world with your honor, and appear in the splendor of your Majestic might on all the inhabitants of earth, so that everyone with a soul says:” Hashem the king of Israel, is the King and his reign is on the whole world.”
May we see the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash speedily in our days and see comfort for all that we have been through in the past two thousand years.