Tisha B'Av

by Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman, Rabbinic Cabinet

Tisha B'Av (the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av) begins tonight at sundown. This holy day marks the destruction of the First and Second Temples that once stood in Jerusalem, as well as many other catastrophes that befell the Jewish people throughout history. This fear of destruction, tragedy, and war pervades our collective history, as well as the stories we recount each year. It also affects us today, as we fear ongoing violence in the Middle East.

In the mid-90s, I lived in Israel on a kibbutz in the North, on the border of Lebanon.  Working in the fields each day, the deafening sounds of Israeli warplanes flying above me headed for Lebanon would make me shudder.  Sometimes the artillery fire across the border would be so strong my house would shake.  I remember wrestling with my own fear of war, even though this was a time of "peace" and in reality I was quite safe.  And now, as I think of the North of Israel one year after the Second Lebanon War, I remember the fear that Israelis felt as Katyusha rockets fell so close to their homes.

The theology surrounding Tisha B'Av can be disturbing to liberal Jews.  The Babylonian Empire destroyed the First Temple in 586 B.C.E; the Roman Empire destroyed the Second Temple in 70 C.E.  But neither the Prophets nor the Rabbis, who authored the texts that responded to these calamities, placed blame solely on our enemies.  Rather, they held their own people responsible.  Over a million Jews were killed in horrendous warfare, yet our tradition blames those very people for acting recklessly. 

The Prophets believed that the destruction of the First Temple was punishment for Israel's sins of idolatry, immorality, and murder, and the Rabbis taught that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam—senseless and unjustified hatred among the people.  This might be a case of our ancestors simply "blaming the victim," and we should question how they could chastise their people in light of the enormity of the devastation of human life, land, and traditions.

And yet, the Prophets and the Rabbis do have something to teach us.  This year, having recently marked the 40th year of the Israeli occupation, the words of the Prophets and the Rabbis can caution us as a people not to act too self-righteously.  They give us the opportunity, at this time of Tisha B'Av, to closely examine our own behavior—not just on an individual level but on a communal and national level as well.  They can call on us to think critically about our own people's behavior and challenge our communal leadership to speak out against occupation. 

If we care about Israel, the Jewish people, and honoring the memory of the two-time destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, then we must move beyond our fear to look at the impact of 40 years of occupation and how we can and must bring it to an end. This year, on Tisha B'Av, let us hold ourselves and each other up to our highest ideals and confront these issues carefully, thoughtfully, and respectfully.

Suggestions for Tisha B'Av:

  • Read Eicha (Lamentations). Discuss how it may be seen as a cautionary tale about the horror of growing indifferent to the suffering of others.

  • Discuss how collective mourning can help us face ourselves individually. How do we demonize others? How can we sow empathy and forgiveness?

  • Support every effort for peace. Behavior is contagious, and peace breeds peace. The continuation of the occupation eats away at Israel's spirit; reconciling with the Palestinians, however, could lead the country from strength to strength. When the world is healed, we are healed with it.

Please send any additional suggestions you have about commemorating Tisha B'av to Rabbi John Friedman, chair of Brit Tzedek's Rabbinic Cabinet at rabbifriedman@btvshalom.org


Rabbi Laurie ZimmermanRabbi Laurie Zimmerman is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim in Madison, Wisconsin. She currently serves on the board of the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice of South Central Wisconsin. She graduated from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, PA in 2003 where she was awarded The Rabbi Devora Bartnoff Memorial Prize for Spiritually Motivated Social Action. Rabbi Zimmerman has been involved in Jewish peace work for several years and was actively involved in Rabbis for Human Rights both in Jerusalem and in Philadelphia, doing field work and editing a rabbinic resource packet for the High Holy Days.


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