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Reframing What Isn’t Working

08/04/2022 08:27:46 AM


Rabbi Ron Segal

The mental picture is one I will never forget. It was at the beginning of my first year of rabbinical school in Jerusalem and several of my classmates and I decided to go to the Kotel (Western Wall) in observance of Tisha b’Av, a historical day of fasting which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem two millennia ago (and longer). We were truly unprepared, though, for the scene that greeted us: a throng in the thousands of ultra-Orthodox men packed into the plaza, all mourning, davening and swaying, moaning and wailing the ancient destruction with profound grief and sadness. We stood at a distance, honestly transfixed by the sight.

As a reminder, Tisha b’Av (the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, which falls on this Sunday, August 7) is traditionally observed through fasting, reading the Book of Lamentations, and assembling for communal prayer. Our experience at the Kotel, though, prompted significant conversation amongst fellow rabbinic students about the meaning behind the traditional practices as well as the contemporary importance, even the relevance, of Tisha b’Av for more progressive Jewish communities. Notably, the observance of the ‘holiday’ in non-Orthodox circles outside of Israel has waned precipitously over the past few centuries. However, as we do not pray (or hope) for the rebuilding of the ancient temple in our context, recognizing that its destruction is actually what catalyzed the emergence of the Judaism we practice today, this is likely unsurprising.  Still, might there be a different lens through which to view and perhaps come to appreciate the significance and yes, the relevance, of Tisha b’Av in a modern light?

In a recent podcast episode of For Heaven’s Sake, Rabbi Donniel Hartman (President of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem) and Yossi Klein HaLevi (Senior Reseach Fellow at the Institute) shared their thoughts about Tisha b’Av, why they feel it is “no longer working” for the vast majority of Jews today – including, they noted, many who actually do observe the rituals associated with the solemn day.  “How,” they discussed, “might the holiday be understood beyond a day of mourning over historical Jewish tragedies?  Amongst the various points shared, “Tisha B’Av,” they suggest, “is a day of national reckoning with our collective shortcomings as a people,” and “our national sovereignty is conditional upon our willingness and capacity to change and build a society worthy of perpetuating.” For thousands of years, the Rabbis have asserted that the destruction of the temples on the 9th of Av was ultimately due to the sin of baseless hatred amongst the Jewish people. “Jewish societies are most threatened by dangers from within and not dangers from without,” contended the podcasters.  “So, why then isn’t Tisha b’Av ‘working’? Is the serious issue of baseless hatred within the Jewish community no longer relevant?  Or, is the real issue that what we truly feel is that the only hatred which is baseless is the hatred directed towards me, never the hatred I direct toward others?!”

What if we understood Tisha b’Av, not as a day to grieve the destruction of ancient temples and other historical tragedies, but rather as a day on which to “encourage a culture of collective introspection in our increasingly polarized society?” “What if we were to direct our intentions for this solemn day toward a community-wide consideration and reckoning of the hatreds that are needlessly and painfully tearing our people apart?”  Were we to reframe Tisha b’Av in this light and focus on the pervasive and divisive hatreds that are surely worth lamenting, I believe we could infuse renewed significance, meaning, and pressing relevance into a day that – seen in this light – desperately needs to be reclaimed and urgently observed!  On this Tisha b’Av, let us pause to consider – and strive to rectify – the ways we each sow seeds of division and instead commit to planting gardens of peace.

Mon, December 11 2023 28 Kislev 5784