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Why should we care that in 586 BCE (Before the Common Era) the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple and in 70 CE the Romans destroyed the Second Temple?

The Temple was the central address for Jewish worship and assembly for hundreds of years. Each conqueror thought he could destroy the Jewish people, our identity, and our commitment to our God through such destruction. Needless to say, they were wrong.

We Jews are still here, even if the Temple is not. So why should we continue to remember its destruction with a series of self-afflicting traditions that include 25 hours of fasting (in the heat of the summer), refraining from washing (in the heat of the summer), and reading the Biblical Book of Lamentations by candlelight while sitting (uncomfortably) on the floor?

Judaism is generally a joyous religion. We celebrate weekly on Shabbat with good food, a nice nap, and fellowship, in addition to the requisite prayer services. We have a celebratory holiday almost every month. Such a focus on joy allowed our ancestors to transcend the often desperate conditions in which they lived, helping them not only to survive but also to transmit to their children, and to us, an attitude of self-respect and respect for others. I believe that is why most Jews are not driven by hate and anger: because the joy of the Sabbath taught us that we need not be defined by what others say about us or do to us.

Judaism sets aside one day each week, the Sabbath, as a taste of the world to come, of how the world can be filled with harmony, peace and plenty. Nevertheless, Judaism is not a religion to deny reality. That is why Judaism also sets aside one day each year, Tisha b’ Av, to mourn all that remains unjust, violent and wrong about the world.

Tisha b’Av is more than a commemoration of the destruction of two buildings. Long ago, the rebuilding of a Jerusalem Temple at peace became a paradigmatic symbol of a time when all people can live in peace and security, each sit under his or her vine and fig tree and not be afraid. Although grounded in our particularly Jewish historical experience, Tisha b’Av is the acknowledgement that much of the reality of human experience is tragically and needlessly violent. This is why Art Waskow of the Shalom Center years ago linked the commemoration of Tisha b’Av with the anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Life can and should be filled with joy. However, life is not about partying. Life does contain its horrors, its mourning, and its fears, as these last three weeks have reminded us. For our ancestors, it was the fears of pogroms and blood libels. For us it may be ecological disaster, poverty, avian flu pandemic, the debacle in Iraq, Iran’s nuclear threat, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah rockets striking Haifa and Safed. There certainly is more than enough to be depressed about regarding the state of the world and our future. Tisha b’Av continues to serve as a reminder of all that continues to be wrong with the world. It gives us a chance to have a good cry over the helplessness we feel in the face of the pain we see around us and around the globe. But we don’t stay there in that helpless morass of depression. On the tenth of Av we return to doing what we can to remake the world in the image of Shabbat, moving the world from where it is to where it can be.

Posted by Rabbi Susan Grossman

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