The Human Tragedy of Tisha B’av

One of the biggest challenges of Tisha b’Av is finding the strength to feel pain that has had thousands of years to heal. For many people, the day ruefully memorializes our fallen temples, but unfortunately, the loss of our temple is no reason to be sad for many of our brethren. Perhaps this explains the dearth of non-Orthodox Tisha b’Av services. Why mourn for a temple if its absence is not considered a tragedy? Even for devout Jews, who intellectually appreciate the devastation we should feel over the destruction of our temple, turning these thoughts into feelings can be extremely difficult. Knowing why a prescribed emotion is appropriate is a far cry from experiencing the sentiment on demand. “The furthest distance I’ve ever known, is the distance from my head to my heart.”

Perhaps it’s wise to aim our attention towards something that more directly touches our hearts. Tisha b’Av and the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem are not merely about architectural losses or even the loss of sacrifices and temple rituals of splendor. Indeed those are certainly lamentable, but they are so foreign to us that it can feel like trying to feel a mathematic equation. We know that the arithmetic works, but we don’t have any feelings about the numbers. Indeed, there is something far more calamitous, far more personal, far more tender, that occurred when the Second Temple was razed to the ground nearly 2,000 years ago.

Our Talmudic Sages teach that the Second Temple was destroyed due to sinat chinam — baseless hatred — between fellow Jews. Typically, this is taken to mean that the Jews of that time, much like Jews of seemingly every time, did not need an excuse for enmity towards each other. There’s nothing fancy about it. They simply hated each other and perpetuated an anti-social environment. Instead of gratuitous kindness and friendship, they exhibited gratuitous divisiveness and acrimony towards each other. For this, the Temple was destroyed. We did not deserve a Temple if we couldn’t even be friends. In a practical sense, how could we expect to work together in the Temple if we hated each other? Even in a halachic sense, how could a priest achieve atonement for another person if he didn’t even care if that other person was forgiven. Caring for one another is a prerequisite to the service in the Temple. To be sure, this is a valuable and important lesson: “A house divided against itself cannot stand” socially and religiously.

This is an acceptable interpretation and one that has been a cornerstone of the moral lessons of Tisha b’Av for 2000 years. But if we dig a little deeper, it seems the rabbis may have been alluding to a bit of historical context as well. The simple version of the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. is a story of superior Roman forces overwhelming a puny Jewish army. Our defeat was inevitable. But the siege and subsequent fall of Jerusalem to the Roman legions were far more dramatic and much more tragic. It’s a take of deceit, betrayal, fratricide, and ego.

The Roman victory was actually unintentionally aided by Jewish rebel factions, whose internal strife paved the way for the enemy’s triumph. For decades, militias of Jewish rebels fought back the Romans with minor victories on the battlefield. There were even some moral victories when we lost, such as the suicide pact at the Battle of Masada. No unified leader emerged and the various rebel groups jockeyed for power, authority, popularity, support, and recruits.

The last stand of the Jews during the Great Revolt took place in Jerusalem. At the time, according to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, three groups of Jewish zealots occupied the Temple Mount, outer courtyard, and inner courtyard of the temple for strategic purposes. Three groups with a common enemy, but without any unity.

The holy residents of Jerusalem shared their precious city with these extremists who vacillated between genuinely attempting to best the Romans and pillaging their fellow Jews throughout the land of Israel for entertainment and personal gain. While Jerusalem was under siege, a guerrilla civil war raged in the hills of Jerusalem between these rival groups. During this crucial and perilous time, these militias slaughtered each other, sabotaged communal supplies laying waste to Jerusalem and its petrified residents. Eventually, the groups retreated to the Temple Mount. There were attempts to carry on business as usual, but even in those moments, the civil war was transplanted into the Temple. One incident involved rebels in disguise ambushing their rivals while they were pretending to offer sacrifices.

Power struggles and petty personal issues destroyed any chance the rebels may have had for military success. Without supplies, a common strategy, leadership, unity of purpose, or even unity of religious conviction, the siege choked the city of Jerusalem and its inhabitants. The vicious infighting weakened the rebels to the point that they practically handed the Romans the opportunity to burn Jerusalem and its prized temple to the ground. Eventually, the Romans waltzed through the city and ended our Second Temple period with brutality and cruelty.
Sinat chinam might refer to the general social mood of their time, but I think the rabbis intended to remind us that our divisiveness had the utilitarian effect of making us so weak that we could offer the Romans no military resistance. We had wasted it all fighting among ourselves. There’s no greater sinat chinam than sacrificing our fellow Jews for personal gain.
What was the price of our folly? According to Josephus, the Romans slaughtered 1.1 million Jewish souls during the Great Revolt. We also lost our temple.
It’s true, we lost our temple, but the Temple was constructed of stone, marble, and gold. It was a building. But over one million one hundred thousand people were killed during the Churban. These were people with parents and gradnparents, brothers and sisters, and sons and daughters.
Mourning for the temple is sentimental and admirable. It’s a religious act that demands multiple levels of understanding and sophisticated maneuvering of thoughts and feelings. Mourning our fallen Jewish brothers and sisters is essential and imperative. It’s a human act that should be so easy for us to appreciate. We’ve all experienced human tragedy in our lives to some degree.

If mourning the loss of well over a million lives makes Tisha b’Av resonates in our souls, then we should mourn that grave loss. It’s silly to ignore that pain in favor of the mental gymnastics required to properly mourn the loss of our temple. There’s nothing wrong with choosing the tragedy that we can more easily feel. It’s actually a wise choice.

Collectively, we’ve mourned a lot this summer already. We’ve cried for our kidnapped yeshiva students, twice. Once while we thought they were alive and then again when the truth slammed us over the head with its dull, throbbing pain. We’ve cried for fallen IDF soldiers, twice. Once for their safety and then again when we learn of their ultimate sacrifice. We’ve cried for non-military casualties of the war, twice. Once while we prayed for our welfare in Israel and abroad, and then again when lives are lost. It’s also appropriate to mourn for our cousins in Gaza, twice. Once for the regretful loss of non-combatant life in Gaza and then maybe even for militant life that could have been lived differently.

Tears are never far away these days. Tisha b’Av will always be a challenge, but perhaps we can channel what we’ve felt all summer into the next 36 hours. If we can even do a fraction of that, this year’s Tisha b’Av will be a great success. We have an opportunity to encoutner Tisha B’Av in a way many of us have never experienced it.

“.השיבנו ה’ אליך ונשובה חדש ימינו כקדם”

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.