“Tisha B’Av is an appointed day when you relate to Hashem [God] by discovering how far you are from him,” said Rabbi Aaron Kahn, a director of the Advanced Institute of Talmudic Studies at New York City’s Yeshiva University. “Relating to Him gives us the opportunity to do teshuva [repentance].”
Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, has become synonymous with grief because of the tragic events that happened that day and threatened the existence of the Jewish nation. Its designation as a day of sorrow dates back to the ancient Israelites’ exodus from Egypt when 10 of the 12 spies sent by Moses from the desert to scout Canaan brought back slanderous reports about the land. According to the Book of Numbers, the disheartened Israelites “raised their voice and wept that night.”
Talmudic sages wrote, “That night was Tisha B’Av. God said to them, ‘You wept without reason, and I will designate for you [a time of] weeping for generations.’”
Four days of mourning, including Tisha B’Av, are observed throughout the Jewish calendar to commemorate the events surrounding the Temples’ destruction. Tisha B’Av is observed the most stringently.
Those days will be transformed into festivals when the Messiah arrives, wrote Maimonides, the medieval Talmudic scholar and philosopher. It also is traditionally believed that Moshiach will be born on Tisha B’Av.
The reason given by the prophets for the First Temple’s destruction was that Jews engaged in idolatry, immorality and bloodshed. Because there were no prophecies during the Second Temple’s destruction, the Jews had to look inward, Rabbi Kahn said.
They found they were guilty of sinat chinum, or baseless hatred, toward fellow Jews, according to the Talmud.
“Some rabbis have said that the remedy for baseless hatred is ahavas chinum, or baseless love,” Rabbi Kahn said. “But there is no such thing as baseless love because everyone deserves to be loved for something. You just have to find what it is. Zeroing in on the precious value of each and every Jew will bring the Redemption.”
But the intense spiritual connection with God that Jews reached during the First Temple has never been regained, even when the Second Temple was rebuilt, Maimonides wrote. That is why the Jews of the Second Temple era observed Tisha B’Av, he added.
According to the Talmud, “Whoever mourns for Jerusalem will merit to witness her joy.”
Jews not only mourn the loss of the Temples but the destruction of spiritual closeness. “We mourn the physical destruction of the Temple,” said Rabbi Shlomo Gottdiener, projects coordinator for the Etz Chaim Centers for Jewish Studies in Park Heights and Owings Mills. Rabbi Gottdiener was drawing from the writings of the 20th-century Torah scholar Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler.
“More deeply, we mourn the [loss of the] spiritual underpinnings of the Temple and, even more deeply, we mourn that personal Temple within every Jew that was lost, which precipitated the churban [destruction],” Rabbi Gottdiener said. “Only when the inner spark of spirituality in every Jew’s heart went into exile could the Temple be destroyed and the Jewish people sent into exile.”
But that “spark of spirituality” could be retrieved from exile, Rabbi Gottdiener said. “By mourning the destruction of the Temple in their hearts, every Jew begins the process of return,” he said. “And by replacing hatred with Godliness, spirituality and love for one another, we can rebuild that inner sanctuary and become worthy of the rebuilding of the Temple.”
Yearning for closeness through deeds ultimately will set the stage for redemption, Rabbi Kahn said.
“But before you pray for something, you first must realize how precious that something is,” he said. “For the Jews who wait for Hashem’s redemption and say, ‘We don’t want anyone else in the world but You,’ and show that kind of commitment and passion, Hashem will bring redemption.”
By experiencing the pain of past tragedies, while joyfully anticipating future redemption, Jews maintain a permanent connection to their past and future, Rabbi Kahn said.
“Jews have the longest memory of any nation on earth,” he said. “We don’t just have a memory of the past. We relive the past. It’s the same as during the [Passover] seder when we actually feel redemption from Egypt. It’s the capacity to collapse time to make the past our present and the future our present. It keeps us alive.”
Despite the intense pain evoked by grieving, mourners also reap happiness from reflecting over and recognizing what was lost, said Rabbi Moshe Hauer, spiritual leader of the Orthodox Congregation B’nai Jacob in Park Heights.
“There’s somewhat of a vitality in mourning because you remember what once was, and are left with a fuller experience,” he said. “There is nothing more painful than the tears of mourning. Yet there is nothing more joyous than the vitality that produces those tears.
“As we mourn Jerusalem and the chronic persecution in our history,” Rabbi Hauer said, “part of us awakens to realize how much more there was and will again be.”