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Learning From Tisha B'Av on How to Mourn Today's Varied Tragedies

July 26, 2012 By:
Rabbi Yonah Gross
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Rabbi Yonah Gross

Tisha B'Av, the 9th day of the month of Av, will be observed beginning Saturday night, July 28. The day is synonymous with great disasters in Jewish history, especially when both the first and second Temples were destroyed.

After the time of the Mishnah, many other calamities coincided with this day, including the Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492, the beginning of World War I and the first steps in liquidating the Warsaw Ghetto.

In addition to specific events that occurred on Tisha B'Av, the day has also become a time to memorialize the other tragedies our people faced throughout history. We spend the day fasting, reciting Kinnot, listening to the Book of Lamentations and observing other afflictions.

However, Tisha B'Av is not only about the past but also the present. The Jeru­salem Talmud teaches that "Every generation that does not build [the Temple], it is as though they have destroyed it," bringing the obligation forward from past to present. There is much in our generation to be mourned.

The Temple, that central place of gathering for all Jews, does not exist. There are Jews in many places living under threats of persecution. There is a growing rash of anti-Semitism and new and alarming terror attacks (along with the memory of many past horrors). All of these are things that today, in 2012, we should be thinking about and mourning on Tisha B'Av.

But how does one make all of this relevant when we live in a state of comfort and prosperity unheard of in our history? The Midrash declares that as long as God's presence was in the Temple, it could not be attacked.

On Tisha B'Av, we still mourn that God is not clearly present to us, both in our temple and in the world. We can't understand the infamous "why" questions of the Holocaust and we can't make sense of why bad things happen to good people. Where are the miracles that once existed? And where is justice in our world?

While one of the Tisha B'Av prohibitions is learning Torah unrelated to the day, we are permitted to learn the book of Job. This book discusses the trials of a good man; it is a journey to understanding many crucial issues. But why is this book permitted? Nothing in the text seems to be connected to the Temple. The answer lies in the fact that while the Temple is not discussed, the book focuses on hester panim, the hiding of God's face, so that we're unable to understand his ways -- a true human conundrum.

Tisha B'Av is often described as a day of pain and suffering. But is there a difference between the two? My teacher, Rabbi David Aaron, once recounted the experience of seeing his wife in labor. Witnessing her distress, he began to panic. His wife responded, "I might be in excruciating pain, but I'm not suffering. There's a big difference between pain and suffering. Suffering has no purpose, but this pain has purpose -- I am giving birth to new life."

While it may appear that God is not present in our lives, our hope on Tisha B'Av is that we can begin to understand in some way that our suffering has purpose, that our millennia of trials and tribulations have had meaning. At the end of every prayer session, we conclude with Aleinu, quoting the verse from Zecharia referring to the time of the Mashiach and the building of the Third Temple.

"On that day God will be one and His Name will be one." The Name of God symbolizes the way that He is perceived by us. We hope that, one day soon, we will be able to see not just the suffering we've known but rather the presence and love that God has had for us all along.

Rabbi Yonah Gross is the Rabbi of Congregation Beth Hamedrosh in Wynnewood.

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