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Why Fast on Tish’ah BeAv?

One of my favorite places in Israel is the Israel Museum, the sprawling art complex located on one of the hills of Jerusalem, not far from the Knesset. When I was living in Jerusalem in the year 2000, I was studying at Machon Schechter, the property of which abutted the back end of the Israel Museum, and I periodically visited the museum to stroll its galleries. The Israel Museum possesses significant collections of some Jewish artists, and one in particular that I recall is Camille Pissarro, whose birth name was Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro; his parents were of Portuguese and French Jewish ancestry.

Pissarro is primarily known as an Impressionist, although he also spent a few years in the late 1880s painting in the Pointillist style, a technique which uses carefully-placed dots of individual colors which, when seen from a distance, create a cohesive image. Today we might think of this style as “pixelated,” although of course that term did not exist in the 19th century.

One such painting of Pissarro’s is found in the Israel Museum: Sunset at Eragny, which he painted as he was emerging from this Pointillist period:

Sunset at Eragny – Camille Pissarro

If you zoom into the upper part of the painting, you see dots of blue, purple, green, red, and yellow, swirling around each other in a kind of trippy miasma. When you pull back, it is clear that you are looking at a sunset. 

Which leads me, of course, to Tish’ah BeAv, the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, the only day other than Yom Kippur on which we fast for a full 25 hours. This is the day on which we recall the destruction of the First and Second Temples, and a long list of other calamities which have befallen the Jewish people on this date. (Why is the sunset a good transition to Tish’ah BeAv? Because there is no other day of the year on which those of us who fast look forward so desperately to sunset.)

We might ask ourselves, why should we continue to fast on this day? Why should Tish’ah BeAv still be the day of mourning it has been for our people for 2,000 years? Why should we continue to afflict ourselves on this day? After all, we have the State of Israel, built on the national yearning of two millennia.

Furthermore, despite the current spike in anti-Semitism, most of us still live quite comfortably here in America. And let’s face it, at least those of us in the non-Orthodox quarters of the Jewish world are not exactly eager to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, reinstall the hierarchical kohanic priesthood, and resume animal sacrifices. I’ll stick with Rabbinic Judaism, which is far more democratic (with a small “d”), and involves far less bovine blood, thank you very much.

So why fast? Should not the Ninth of Av be instead a day of joy, a day of triumph? They tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat!

It’s a fair question. Let’s leave aside the Holocaust – we have Yom HaShoah for that. But mourning for the Temple, which represents an ancient Jewish practice that is more or less completely alien to how we live and worship as Jewish today? Do we really need to do that?

And the answer, of course, is yes. Absolutely. But it is not really about the Temple and the kohanim and the sacrifices. Really, it is about the arc of Jewish history, and the precariousness of life. This day of mourning and fasting stands in contrast to Yom Kippur, the other 25-hour fast, which is about our own personal development.

The challenge, ḥevreh, is one of context. How do we understand what is going on around us without the bigger picture? How can we make sense of current events without seeing them in relation to everything else?

At any given moment, we might be experiencing one particular dot in a Pointillist painting. One pixel. Now we are in a blue dot; next month we’ll be in a red dot, and so forth. We cannot fully grasp the wider significance of our current circumstances until they are long past, until we have the gift of context, which in some cases takes many, many years. 

Surely our ancestors in Jerusalem, in the year 70 CE, could see that the Romans had laid waste to the city, toppled the Temple, killed some of their fellow Jews, and forced those who remained out of the city limits. From their perspective, Judaism was done. It was over. With no Temple, no kohanic hierarchy, no levitical choir, no Sanhedrin, and no Holy City, there was no future to Judaism. Or so they thought from their vantage point, in the immediate moment.

Detail from the Arch of Titus in Rome, showing Roman soldiers carrying away implements from the Second Temple in 70 CE

And yet, out of the chaos and destruction came this, what we know as Judaism, the way that we practice our faith today. And while the prior form of Judaism, the Temple-centric, sacrificial cult lasted for more than a thousand years, Rabbinic Judaism has now been around for nearly twice that time. 

The book of Eikhah, Lamentations, tells the story not of that destruction, but the one at the hands of the Babylonian Empire seven centuries earlier. It is notable for its structure: four out of the five chapters have exactly 22 verses, and chapter 3 has 66; four out of the five chapters are “aleph-betical,” that is, the first letter of each verse follows the pattern of the Hebrew aleph-bet. The impression one gets, when pulling back the lens, is that as the book tells the tale of Jerusalem laid waste and desolate, that Eikhah itself is trying to bring some sense of order to the chaos of the Babylonian Exile.

Like Pissaro’s Sunset at Eragny, we cannot see the full context of a particular moment in time or an event until we are far removed from it. And how far removed must we be? Tish’ah BeAv allows us to focus on essential moments in Jewish history and recall our fundamental vulnerability; we fast on this day not to remember the Temple or call for its rebuilding but to remind ourselves that what we have right now can be taken away. Our safety, our comfort, our wealth could all evaporate.

Let us hope that is not the case. Nonetheless, we know that the world is changing. We know that as we Jews have wandered through history, situations and events and empires have come and go, and our rituals and text have sustained us. We celebrate freedom on Pesaḥ and Ḥanukkah and Purim; we pray for atonement on Yom Kippur; we celebrate the bounty of life on Sukkot and the gift that keeps on giving, the gift of Torah on Shavu’ot. And on Tish’ah BeAv we remind ourselves of human frailty, that any moment a great wind could knock the fiddler off the roof.

And yet, there is something of a hopeful note to Tish’ah BeAv as well. As the day progresses, the affliction gets lighter. Those who sit on the floor in the evening and at Shaarit move up to the chairs at minah. The nusa becomes less despondent, the scriptural readings less dire. We recite the berakhot of personal gratitude that we omit in the morning. Our historical context has also shown us, over and over again, that in the wake of loss and destruction there is hope. Grief and mourning will eventually yield to joy. 

At the southern end of the Western Wall, rocks that fell during the Roman destruction of Jerusalem

Tish’ah BeAv is a yearly reminder to re-examine our lives, to take the long view of the context in which we find ourselves, and to hope for a better future. We cannot know what current events will bring us; we can only see our immediate circumstances. And as our history has taught us over and over, just because we are relatively comfortable right now does not mean that it will still be true next year, or in a decade or a century. It’s our communal way of guarding against complacency, a psychological exercise in being prepared.

So take a day and be uncomfortable. As we listen to the mournful tones of Tish’ah BeAv, perhaps we will all gain a little perspective.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 8/6/2022.)

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