The 9th of Av: The Day of Weeping Becomes a Holiday of Joy
Excluding the fast of Yom Kippur, which is a separate mitzvah in the Torah, all of the other fast days on the Jewish calendar revolve in some way around the destruction of our Holy Temple, the בית המקדש, in Jerusalem. The fast of the 10th of Tevet commemorates the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem. The 17th of Tammuz marks the breach of the walls surrounding Jerusalem made by the Babylonian enemy; and the 9th of Av commemorates the Temple’s destruction. The day after Rosh Hashanah, the Fast of Gedaliah, is a fast to mourn the assassination of Gedaliah ben Achikam. He was the Jewish leader left in Israel with a small remnant of Jews after the destruction of the Temple. Even the Fast of Esther is related to the destruction of the Temple. The events leading to Purim happened to our people as a consequence of their exile from Israel after the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE.
The 9th of the Hebrew month of Av, תשעה באב, however, is a date that marks tragedy to our nation since our ancestors departed Mt. Sinai on their way to the Land of Israel. It was on the night of that fateful date that the Children of Israel rebelled against going into Canaan. In the morning it was decreed that all the men 20 and older would not enter Israel. The nation would wander in the desert for 40 years until that generation of men died out. Although the national rebellion had been instigated by 10 prominent leaders of the nation 40 years earlier and that entire generation of males was now dead, Moshe nonetheless retells the story in this week’s parsha, Devorim, for the new and all succeeding generations. Why?
In Sefer Bamidbar, 14:1, the Torah specifically points out the emotional reaction of the people to the report by the 10 leaders/spies after returning from their reconnaissance mission of Canaan. The Torah records that night the people wept in their tents. Crying is a very natural human expression. Yet we know that if the Torah records something, it takes the time to mention that the nation wept, there must be a very significant lesson for us as well.
In Psalm 106, verse 27, Rashi records the famous remark by our Sages, “God said, ‘you cried for no reason on this night, therefore in the future I will provide you with ample reason to cry on this night. I will destroy the Temple on the 9th of Av.’” Furthermore, the Jerusalem Talmud records the famous remark by our Sages, “Every generation in which the Temple has not been rebuilt is like the generation in which it was destroyed.” It seems then that the sin of the generation of the spies is לדורות, for all generations. If so, we must conclude that we too are prone to this same serious flaw. What do the Sages mean by “crying for nothing” and furthermore, what is the nature of this sin?
Crying can be of two types. We cry for a real and true loss. The death of a person, whose love and companionship were valuable in our development, the loss of a family member, friend or teacher. Crying in this situation is based on the proper focus of life. However, we also cry over an imaginary loss, perhaps when our favorite team loses the championship. This loss is an illusory loss. It is something truly insignificant to our lives made important only by a fantasy built up in our minds.
The דור המדבר, “the generation of the desert,” was a wealthy population. God had made sure of that when they left Egypt. Also after the army of Pharaoh was drown in the Red Sea, all of the jewels and precious metals adorning their uniforms and chariots washed up on the shore. They were there for the taking by the newly liberated Hebrew slaves. The fact that the spies brought back samples of the fruits of Canaan shows us that the motivation of their reconnaissance wasn’t truly military.
That first generation of Jews were attracted to the promise of “a land flowing with milk and honey” but in the wrong way. When confronted with the reality that a mighty people lived there, the fantasy of quickly possessing even greater wealth was dashed. Their crying was in large part due to the breaking of their fantasy of having great wealth and living in utopia.
That generation lost focus of the true values of life. Their attachment to the land was misplaced. Rather than view the material goods displayed by the spires as a means for personal growth in developing a relationship with God as well as establishing and fulfilling the divine purpose to create a “nation of priests and a holy nation,” possessing the physical instead became the goal and reason for wanting to live in the “Promised Land.” Wealth and property have a value and purpose. They are to be used as a vehicle to enhance our relation with God. The material wherewithal and security of a homeland that God grants us are to facilitate learning and the performance of mitzvot. The individual and national spiritual elevation that can be gained through wealth when attached to it properly was forfeited by the generation that left Egypt.
Today as well, if Israel is viewed and used by Jews the same way people view any other country, end for our political and material life, adopting the corrupt values of other societies, then collectively as a people we suffer from the same defect as our ancestors. But if we use Israel for our growth as human beings through Torah study, the performance of mitzvot, advancing secular knowledge and by administering justice and chesed to all people, then the land fulfills its true value and serves its designed purpose: to enhance our relationship with God and serve as a model and showcase of life for all humanity. Our Sages remark that if the non-Jewish nations would have realized that sacrifices in the Holy Temple were offered first on their behalf, before those of the Jews, instead of sending their best armies to destroy the Holy Temple, they would have stationed their elite soldiers around the Holy Temple to protect it.
Not having that kind of society existing on the land of Israel is a loss worth crying about. However, in the very last law in the “Laws of Fast Days” the Rambam writes, “In the Messianic era all of the fast days will become days of rejoicing, happiness and holidays.” The reason for that reversal is simple. In that era we will be filled with the true knowledge and focus of the proper values of life. This awareness will be reflected by the change in the natural human expression from sorrow and morning to joy and celebration.
May this Tisha B’Av mark the beginning of our return to a life imbued with all of our Torah values and through this process may we merit living in the time of the full restoration of our Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Robert Kaplan