Rabbi Michael Barclay
Tisha b’Av: Turning Darkness Into Light
“The white man hates the black man. The black man hates the yellow man. The yellow man hates the red man. And everyone hates the Jew.”
This Saturday night begins the holy day of Tisha b’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av…the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. It is a commemoration of a series of tragedies that happened to the Jewish people on that date, and we fast and traditionally read the biblical book of Lamentations. Depending on the tradition you follow, we fast the entire day of the 9th of Av (commanded in Mishna close to 2000 years ago), and either have no meat or wine the day before, the week before, the entire first nine days of Av, or the entire three weeks between the 17th of Tamuz and the 9th of Av.
If a bad thing happened to Jews, there’s a good chance that it happened on this date. Just a few of the tragedies that occurred on the ninth of Av include:
The spies returned from Canaan without faith, and led to us wandering in the desert for 40 years
The First Temple was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE
The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE
The Bar Kochba revolt was crushed by the Romans in 135 CE
Turnus Rufus plowed the site of the Temple in 135 CE
The First Crusade commenced in 1096
The Jews were expelled from England in 1290
The Jews were expelled from France in 1306
The Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492
Germany entered World War I in 1914, which ultimately led to the Holocaust
Himmler received approval for “the final solution” in 1941
The mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka began in 1942
The amia bombing of the Jewish community in Buenos Aries, killing 85 and injuring 300 occurred in 1994
8000 Jews were expelled from Gush Katif in 2005
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for the abolition on the Abraham accords for peace and for the destruction of Israel in 2019
But why do we pay such attention to this sad day, and focus so much on the loss, pain, and heartache associated with Jewish tragedies? Why does our faith tradition, which is fully committed to joy, go so deeply into sorrow for this one day?
There are a number of reasons, but two are especially important, especially in the challenging times of the 21st century anti-Semitism.
The first is to highlight the sorrow for one day so that we do not embrace sadness all year. It’s very Jungian. For one day per year we fully embrace our pain and sadness so that we do not carry that pain with us all year and throughout our lives.
Have you ever wondered why Jews rarely have a “victim” mentality? It has to do with the practices of this holiday. Since we go fully into the pain for one day we have no need to be depressed, sulk as victims, or attempt to make others feel guilty for the pains we have experienced. We don’t go looking for guilt reparations from Spain, Iran, or Italy for pains we suffered hundreds or thousands of years ago; and we instead choose to move forward all year long towards joy and success. By embracing the pain for this day ONLY, we choose life over death, blessing over curse, and joy over victimhood.
The other large insight from this holiday is a simple but powerful one: we shall never forget.
Never shall we forget how the world has persecuted us…not as victims but as the “canaries in the coal mine” who see potential challenges and dangers in the world. Remembering these many tragedies allows us the unique perspective to be able to foresee coming tragedies with the perspective of a people which has experienced thousands of years of tragedies and persecutions. By being conscious of what preceded each of these tragedies we have the opportunity to see similar patterns and call them out before it is too late and another tragedy befalls us and the world, God forbid. It is one of the reasons that observant Jews consider patterns of anti-Semitism more seriously than secular Jews: there is an awareness through this holiday’s observance of so many tragedies that translates into a consciousness of other potential dangers.
But this holiday is also about faith. Our faith is steeped in the reality that despite the many tragedies that have befallen us, God has always made sure that we survive. Our faith is based in the knowing that we will get through the toughest challenges just as we have always gotten through in the past. The Babylonians, Roman, Nazis, and more could not destroy us, and the people of Israel will always live. Am Yisrael Chai!
This weekend, consider fasting on Saturday night through Sunday night and contemplating not just the pains in Jewish history; but as an act of faith that no matter how bad anti-Semitism gets (and it is bad right now), we will survive and thrive. If you don’t want to fast, consider not having meat or wine; or at least spend some conscious thinking in Sunday about how we truly are blessed as a people to have experienced pain but transcended into joy and success with the help of God.
Use the day as a reminder that no matter how dark the world may look, or how painful your personal situation is mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, financially, or in any way…you will come through the darkness into joy. In the darkest times over thousands of years, we have come out as a people on the other side. In your darkest times, there is a future waiting for you of light, joy, and love.
May we all have an easy fast, and may we all be blessed to walk through darkness and into light; to change curses to blessings; and to have faith that there is beauty in the other side of whatever storms we are experiencing.
Rabbi Michael Barclay
July 15, 2021
6th of Av, 5781