Tisha B'Av 5779

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Parashat Devarim, Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22; Isaiah 1:1-27

by Ben Weisman, K20 Intern, Sha’arei Shalom, Cary, NC

Jewish tradition tells us that whoever destroys a life is considered to have destroyed the whole world. In recent days, many worlds were shattered here in the United States. Gilroy, California; El Paso, Texas; Dayton, Ohio; Chicago, Illinois—there have been so many violent attacks in our country that it is nearly impossible to create a comprehensive list. For many, these tragedies evoke such visceral reactions that it is difficult to focus on mourning the loss of a building destroyed in another land thousands of years ago, as we do on Tisha B’Av.

On the Hebrew calendar, this Saturday is the ninth day of the month of Av, or in Hebrew, Tisha B’Av.  Normally, the ninth of Av is a fast day, but when it falls on Shabbat, as it does this year, the fast is postponed until the following day. In any case, the Saturday before the fast is called Shabbat Chazon, after the special Haftarah reading from the first chapter of Isaiah. 

The Torah reading for this special Shabbat comes from the opening of the book of Deuteronomy. Here Moshe recounts the history of Israel, including the report of the spies and God’s decree that the Exodus generation would die wandering in the wilderness, never to see the land of promise. The tragedy of Israel’s rejection of God and his land, and God’s rejection of that generation, is the first of five tragedies traditionally mourned on Tisha B’Av. According to Mishna Ta’anit 4:6, “On the ninth of Av it was decreed that our ancestors should not enter the land, the Temple was destroyed the first and the second time, Betar was captured, and [Jerusalem] was plowed under.” In addition to these events, Tisha B’Av is a day to mourn the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Shoah, and other tragedies in Jewish history. 

In light of these historical calamities, Tisha B’Av is a day of sadness and mourning. The day is traditionally observed by refraining from eating and drinking, washing, anointing, wearing leather shoes, and engaging in marital relations. Tisha B’Av, however, is more than just a day to feel sad about historical events. According to Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov, the purpose of fast days is “to awaken hearts towards repentance through recalling our forefathers’ misdeeds; misdeeds which led to calamities…” The destruction of the Temple represents a breach in the relationship between God and Israel.  We must go beyond simply mourning this breach; we must take action toward repairing it. National redemption for Israel and personal redemption for each one of us requires us to acknowledge and turn away from evil. Not only do we need to turn away from evil, but we need to return to a covenant of love with God.

In the haftarah, God reaffirms his covenant faithfulness to the people of Israel. The chapter begins with a harsh rebuke against the wickedness of Judah, even comparing the nation to Sodom and Gomorrah. This rebuke is a reminder of the theological reasons for the exile and destruction of Jerusalem. Amidst this painful reminder of our own shortcomings, God promises, “I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning. Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city” (Isaiah 1:26). In the place where there was destruction, there will be restoration; where there was injustice, there will be justice and righteousness.

This promise of restoration and justice from Isaiah is a familiar part of Jewish prayer. In fact, the Sages reworded the verse into a cry for God to keep his promises and bring justice to the earth, forming a core section of the weekday Amidah: “Restore our judges as before and our counselors as at first. Remove from us sorrow and sighing, and reign over us, you, Adonai, alone with kindness and compassion; and make us righteous with justice. Blessed are you, Adonai, King, Lover of righteousness and justice.” While this prayer asks God to act on our behalf, it is not a prayer of passivity; it follows in the tradition of Avraham and Moshe boldly calling on God to act according to his character.

This bold cry for justice is quite appropriate to Tisha B’Av. On a day that we set aside to focus on tragedies, we are most acutely aware of what is wrong in the world. Mass shootings, starving children, and broken families do not reflect the vision of justice found in the Prophets. We find a summary of this vision in our Haftarah: “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause” (Isaiah‬ ‭1:17‬).

Though it begins with mourning and repentance, biblical justice must result in action. Our cry for justice should begin with prayer, but it must translate into real actions toward building the kingdom of Heaven here on earth. We have been charged with fighting all forms of injustice and healing the wounds of our world. When we mourn the destruction of Jerusalem and cry for its restoration, we are not simply crying over ancient architecture; we cry for the renewal of all creation, the return of Messiah, and the restoration of justice on earth. 

Russ Resnik