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The 9th of Av: What Are We Mourning?

On Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the Hebrew month Av, five specific tragedies occurred to the nation of Israel. On it: (1)God decreed that the generation redeemed from Egypt would not be allowed to enter the land of Israel; (2 and 3) the First and Second Holy Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed; (4) the great city of Betar was captured and its tens of thousands of citizens, including giants in Torah learning and their leader, Bar Kochbah, thought to be the Moshiach were killed; and (5) the wicked Turnus Rufus plowed over the Temple mount and its surroundings fulfilling Jeremiah’s prophecy, “Zion will be plowed over like a field.” (Jeremiah 26:18). This year, since the 9th of Av falls out on Shabbat, the 24-hour observance begins immediately upon the conclusion of Shabbat.

There are very specific activities we cannot do for the duration of Tisha b’Av such as: eat and drink, wash for pleasure, use oils and cosmetics for pleasure, engage in marital relations and wear leather shoes. Our customs also include not greeting someone, sitting on a low chair or floor until midday, and not to eat meat or drink wine until the next day. While many of these practices are taken from our laws of mourning and on their own can be challenging to fulfill, the major difficulty with observing Tisha b’Av is how to experience or feel any sense of loss or mourning? How is it possible to bring the grief of these tragedies, events of the distant past, to our lives today?

In Judaism there are two concepts, “new mourning” and “old mourning.” “New mourning” occurs when we lose a loved one. The immediate grief is intense. Automatically we disengage from the world and our normal routine is overturned. This reaction is the 7 day mourning period that commences with interment of the deceased. Gradually, the intense grief begins to lift. We reenter the world slowly during the next 23 days by participating in more regular activities. Going to work, for example, is now permitted. Out of the unique mitzvah of respect for our parents, a few restrictions on our daily lives continue for the next 11 months. This process is designed to bring the mourner back to a functioning equilibrium. It was instituted by our great Sages thousands of years ago and attests to the remarkable understanding they have of human psychology. Modern psycho-therapy, in comparison, has only recently hit upon these concepts.

However with “old mourning” the process goes in reverse. Beginning three weeks before Tisha b’Av, certain restrictions are invoked, not getting a haircut for one. With Rosh Chodesh Av, more restrictions are instituted. They are very similar to the 23 day mourning period that follows the 7 days of Shiva. Finally, Tisha b’Av is a day of Shiva, a national day of full blown mourning with the addition of fasting. So there is a technical build-up to Tisha b’Av, but the questions still stand, how can an event that occurred so long ago be real to us and evoke a sense of loss to us like it happened yesterday?

In order to answer we must explain the loss. As my mentor and teacher, Rav Yisroel Chait explained, the loss, simply put, was the removal of God’s divine providence, the השרת שכינה, the השגחת ה’, over the Jewish nation. This loss manifests itself in two ways. One manifestation is characterized by the lack of security faced by the nation. All tragic calamities befalling the Jewish people are remembered on Tisha b’Av. This recounting comes through our reading the Book of Lamentations, איכה, and “Kinot,” special dirges composed by our Sages. They express the horror and loss of the Jewish people in the various communities where we have lived since the forced Roman exile following the destruction of the Second Temple. Many of the Kinot depict the destruction of Jewish life throughout Europe during the Crusades. Rabbi Solovietchick, the Rav, often remarked that Tisha b’Av is also the appropriate day to remember and discuss the Holocaust.

The Kinot depict the current state of the nation of Israel. God, through His Torah, promises us that if we follow the Torah, we will live in security in Israel. His watchfulness is the guarantee. But since the Roman exile, a result of our nation turning away from the Torah, our state is tragic. Once God’s watchfulness is removed, there is no real security for any Jew living anywhere. We must be careful, particularly today, of falling into the trap of having a false sense of security. This false notion prevails whether living here in the United States, in Israel or in any other part of the world. Even our great Torah sages were not exempt from tragedy and destruction once God’s divine presence was removed from the nation.

The second aspect of the loss manifests itself in terms of being known as the “nation of God,” the עם ה’. Our national purpose, to reflect the sanctity of God’s name, to bring all mankind closer to God, has been turned into the opposite. We have become a derision to the peoples of the world. Rather than bringing a קידוש שם שמים, “a sanctification to His holy name,” by living a Torah way of life, we have embraced the values and cultures of our adopted homelands. We are often embarrassed about our Jewishness and Jewish practices. We forsake them and replace them with the emptiness of the civilizations in which we find ourselves. Even worse, we try to make them Jewish. The sad part is that the non-Jewish world rightly expects us to be different, to live a life of higher values. By castigating us for our failures, they are in effect, greater believers in the Torah than we are. In this backhanded way, they recognize we were chosen by God to bring His truth to the world and they torment us when we fall short.

Thus, if we truly recognize the loss of God’s divine providence over the Jewish people, how are lives as a people could be so much better, then how could we not cry and mourn at our loss!

Both the Book of Lamentations, איכה, read the night of Tisha b’Av, and the Kinot as well, include the element of נחמה, “comfort” as well as the loss. If we understand that God’s divine providence over the people of Israel is a necessary part of His ultimate plan for mankind, then we know that we can take comfort in the fact that it must and eventually will once again be in place. This idea is brought out in the famous Midrash involving Rabbi Akiva and his fellow Sages. When standing with them near the Temple ruins, they saw foxes running wild over the area of the Holy of Holies. At witnessing this scene they cried while Rabbi Akiva laughed. They asked him, “Akiva, how can you laugh?” He asked them, “How can you cry?” They replied, “Any unauthorized person who goes there shall die, and now foxes are running wild. Shall we not cry?” Rabbi Akiva responded, “That is exactly why I am laughing. Seeing the foxes there is a fulfillment of the prophecy, ‘Zion will be plowed over like a field.’ I more deeply internalize the knowledge that all the prophecies will be fulfilled, including those that foretell the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.”

May Hashem’s words in the Prophets comfort us and turn our mourning this Tisha b’Av into the great and final redemption of the Jewish people, where we will live in security in our ancestral home, Israel, together with God’s divine presence fully restored.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan