Tisha B’av: Why We Mourn
Rabbi Isaac Roussel, Congregation Zera Avraham
We are in the midst of the Three Weeks leading up to Tisha B’av (July 21–22 this year). The Ninth of Av is a day of fasting on which we commemorate the destruction of the two Temples and many other calamities that have befallen our people over the centuries.
This day often goes unobserved in the non-Orthodox world. Some say that since we now have the State of Israel there is no need to mourn over a Temple destroyed 2,000 years ago. Others say that the destruction of the Temple pales in comparison to the horrors of the Holocaust. There are some more liberal-minded Jews who even celebrate the destruction of the Temple because it means that we no longer have animal sacrifices.
I am sometimes asked why Messianic Jews should still observe this day since we have the risen Messiah. While I could go into many different reasons, my response to this question is mainly four-fold.
First, we mourn because the world is not yet fully redeemed. The question above is rooted in a common misunderstanding of Yeshua’s death and resurrection. People tend to think that with his resurrection all is complete. In fact, this was just the beginning of redemption. Yes, Yeshua died and ascended to the Father’s right hand, but we still live in a fallen world. There is still poverty, suffering, disease, violence, and sin. Full redemption does not occur until his return. Rav Shaul says, “We know that until now, the whole creation has been groaning as with the pains of childbirth; and not only it, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we continue waiting eagerly to be made sons” (Rom 8:22–23).
Second, we mourn because we ourselves are not yet fully redeemed. Our reading from the prophets this week is the second haftarah of admonition, from the Book of Jeremiah. In it God mournfully declares, “My people have committed two evils: they have abandoned me, the fountain of living water, and dug themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water!” (Jer 2:13). This text is speaking to Israel’s idolatry, but we do this in many small ways on a regular basis ourselves. We take our eyes off Hashem to try to get what we want through our own efforts. We scheme, gossip, speak harshly, ignore others’ pain, and are consumed with pride. Though we have forgiveness through the Messiah, we are still not fully redeemed. Our sins contribute to the suffering of this world. This is why the Rambam says that we fast on this day to recall that our evil deeds and those of our ancestors have caused the destruction (Hilkhot Ta’anit 5:1). And, I would add, continue to cause destruction in our lives and the lives of those around us. Tisha B’av is not just a time of mourning, but a time of teshuvah, repentance.
Third, we mourn because Israel is not yet fully redeemed. Our movement’s strong evangelical Christian roots influence us to think individualistically. This perspective is at the core of the question, “I have the Messiah, so why should I mourn the Temple’s destruction?” But the fact is that both Scripture and Jewish tradition have a different perspective. We are individuals, but we are part of a wider community, for whom we are responsible. Judaism is not an “I-Thou” religion, it is a “We-Thou” religion. This is why the vast majority of the prayers in our Siddur are written in the plural. This includes our confessions of sin. We may not have committed a particular sin, but a fellow Jew may have. Our community as a whole has sinned, and we are all responsible.
Yom Kippur is predominately focused on the individual before God. Rabbi Ismar Schorcsh, a former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, therefore argues that this is why we need Tisha B’av. He writes:
Yom Kippur and Tisha B’av are tandem. . . . Whereas Yom Kippur is set aside for self-reflection, Tisha B’av is dedicated to pondering the nation’s destiny. . . . To remove Tisha B’av from the liturgical structure is to accentuate the pursuit of personal salvation and to disrupt the carefully crafted equilibrium between individual need and group primacy.
We need both individual and corporate repentance. While we may have found the Messiah, our people by and large have not. We are a part of them and they are a part of us, therefore we need to focus on our joint destiny.
Finally, we mourn because God mourns. Both Scripture and our tradition repeatedly declare that God grieves over this broken world. Because we have a mutual destiny with Hashem, we join in his sorrow over this unredeemed world. (And I believe that there is somber joy in sharing in his pain.) Our Sages understood that God suffers along with Israel and the world. The Talmud puts these words in God’s mouth, “Woe to the children, on account of whose sins I destroyed my house and burnt my Temple and exiled them among the nations of the world. . . . Woe to the Father who had to banish his children!” (M. Berachot 3a).
One of my favorite interpretations of the Mourner’s Kaddish is based on this passage. Not only are we seeking God’s comfort in the loss of a loved one, but we in turn comfort God in that he has lost a child from the world too. Kaddish is therefore not just for the individual, but for the community to comfort Hashem! I find this poignant and beautiful. There is something holy and sacred about sharing in God’s pain for the world.
Thus I commend observance of Tisha B’av to you. Yes, as Messianic Jews, we have the risen Messiah. But we still live in a world of poverty, disease, war, and oppression; a world that destroys temples. We ourselves contribute to this through our own sinful behavior. We are part of a people that is often far from God and desperately needs Messiah Yeshua. And we can join our weeping with Hashem’s weeping over this broken and unredeemed world.
The destruction of both Temples stands as a sign for all of the destruction that exists in the world.
May the groans of our liturgy resonate with the groans of all Creation.
May our fast call us to teshuvah, repentance—repentance for our own sin that brings destruction into this world.
May we mourn for our people, who sometimes live lives far from Hashem.
May we, in the midst of our own mourning, comfort our Father, who weeps over his burnt House and the exile that not only Israel but the whole world experiences.
And thereby, we can bring healing to this world and speed the final redemption!