Everyone knows that the reason we fast on Tisha b’Av is because we are mourning the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, the Temple that stood in Jerusalem. Everyone but the Rambam, Maimonides. In his commentary to the first chapter of Tractate Rosh Hashanah, the Rambam presents an interesting assertion with regards to Jewish history. He writes that during the time of the Second Commonwealth in Jerusalem, when the ashes of the first Temple had been cleared and the second Temple was built in all its glory, the people still fasted on Tisha b’Av. That seems quite odd. If Tisha b’Av is a day to mourn the destruction of the Temple, then once the Temple was rebuilt, the mourning should have stopped.
Maybe the explanation of this practice is that during the Second Temple period the people were not mourning the absence of the Temple, but rather that it had once been destroyed. They may have been happy with what they had, but they did not want to forget what they had lost and all the previous pain that they had endured. Tisha b’Av was for them an exercise in Jewish history. This approach however is flawed, at least within the framework of the Rambam. The Rambam writes in the Laws of Fasts 5:19 that in the End of Days all of the fast days will become nullified, as per the prophecy of Zecharia. In the future there will be no fasting on Tisha b’Av. It is therefore hard to simply suggest that during the Second Temple period Tisha b’Av was observed simply to remember our history, for if that it is the case then perhaps it should also be observed in the End of Days.
Rather, as the Rambam himself suggests, the fast of Tisha b’Av was observed during the Second Commonwealth because it is a day of Huchpelu bo Tzarot, abound in suffering. We are not just mourning the loss of the Temple, we are mourning the myriad of Jewish persecution and troubles over the millenia (See Taanit 4:6). Even while the second Temple stood there was sadly plenty of tragedy to go around.
It seems heretical to suggest that Tisha b’Av is not primarily about the Beit Hamikdash. I myself have delivered many lectures and classes on the concept of Zecher Lechurban, religious observances enacted to remember the destruction of the Temple, and the need to shed a tear on Tisha b’Av for the Makom Hamikdash, Har Bayit, that lays in ruin. But it would seem that the scroll of Eicha also minimizes the role of the destruction of the Temple in our mourning. Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz once pointed out that the Megillah in fact does not focus on the actual destruction of the Temple at all, and there is perhaps just one verse that makes direct reference to the destruction, “Al Har Tzion sheshamem shualim hilchu vo”– Because of Mount Zion, which lies desolate; Jackals prowl over it. Though one can argue that the focus of the megillah is an emotional response to destruction rather than an historical account, his point is worth noting.
Tisha b’Av then is a day to focus on all the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, not just the tragedy of the destruction of the Temple. What is the purpose of this mourning? I think we can again learn something from the position of the Rambam – in the End of Days there will be no mourning on Tisha b’Av. Why not?
Megilat Eicha concludes with the verse, “Ki im maos me’astanu katzafta aleinu ad me’od”- You have rejected us, bitterly raged against us. All the tragedies that befall the Jewish people are so painful because we are worried that they represent a rejection of us as a people. Perhaps Hashem has had enough with all of our rebelliousness and has kicked us out of His house.
When a parent disciplines a child, puts him in the corner or sends him to his room, the child still knows that deep down his parent loves him. The child (hopefully!) knows that although he misbehaved, he nonetheless still has a relationship with his parent. But what happens when a parent, lo aleinu, kicks a child out of the house? What happens when a child’s behavior is so egregious, such a slap in the face, that the parent feels like he has no choice but to reject that child? That is where true pain lies. And that is the depth of our pain on Tisha b’Av.
Ki im maos me’astanu, You have rejected us. We worry that the tragedy after tragedy and pain piled upon pain is a sign that God has kicked us out of His house. He is not just punishing us, but far worse, rejecting us. This is why we conclude the public reading of Eicha by repeating the second to last verse, “Hashiveinu Hashem elecha venashiuva”– Take us back Hashem, and we will return. It is a fervent prayer that we not be rejected.
In the End of Days we will have the clarity and perspective to understand that in fact all the pain and suffering was not a rejection, but a lesson. As such, at that time there will be no need for a Tisha b’Av. But in the present moment it can be hard to have that perspective. Even if there are individuals among us who are able to see the lesson, the majority of people do not. The majority of people respond to the age old question of Tzaddik ve’Rah Lo, why do good things happen to bad people, by rejecting God. If that is what God does for His people, if God can reject us, then I reject Him, they say. How many children of holocaust survivors became atheists, and how many Jews who lived during the era of the destruction of the Temple left the fold? Far too many.
This year, the ninth of Av falls out on Shabbat, and as such the fast is delayed until Sunday and we eat on the ninth of Av. Let us hope and pray that our Shabbat feast this week will be a prelude of things to come and by reaffirming our commitment to Hashem, He will show us and the world that He has not, nor will He ever, reject us.
Rabbi Moshe Davis is the rabbi of Brith Sholom Beth Israel in Charleston, South Carolina
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.