Centuries ago, our sages ruled that the destruction of the First and Second Temples would be commemorated together on Tisha B’Av. Early after World War Two, some suggested that Tisha B’Av also serve as the memorial to mark the Holocaust. Other voices won out, identifying the unique aspects of the Holocaust which required its own mourning, its own lessons. In many communities, Holocaust remembrance services bring large crowds, much larger than those who show up for Tisha B’Av services in United States congregations. That is not only because Tisha B’Av falls during the summer months when so many of our congregants, and rabbis, are away on vacation. I think it is also because, living in the shadow of the trauma of the Holocaust, and the theological questions it raises, we find it hard to cope with a holy day that, at its theological center, focuses on a God who allows destruction to occur.
According to the Book of Ecclesiastes, there is a time and a purpose for everything under the sun. That is true for joy and for sadness. Jews who are connected to the Jewish calendar know that our calendar is filled with joyful opportunities. Sad holidays are truly rare. Each week we celebrate the Sabbath, on which we are prohibited from feeling sadness, even to the degree that the Sabbath overrides shiva, mourning for a loved one. We are commanded to celebrate the three pilgrim festivals–Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot–with joy. We pull out all the stops to make Purim festive; celebrate the lights of Hanukkah; and even rejoice for the trees on Tu B’Shevat.
Once a year, and only once a year, we are commanded to allow ourselves to be depressed, to sit on the ground, barefoot and distraught, mourning for all the pain, torture, death and destruction Jerusalem and the Jewish people have seen throughout the centuries. In a religion that emphasizes life and joy, and for a people who always cling to the hope in a better world, Tisha B’Av is the reality check, the opportunity once a year to see all the pain in the world and mourn for it.
Tisha B’Av remains relevant because the world is not yet perfect, enemies still seek to destroy us, and we remain in exile from our best selves and from unity with a God who cares for us, but whose care is not always present in the world.