This Shabbat we commemorate Tisha B’Av, the culmination of the period begun three weeks ago to recall the destruction of the First and Second Temples and the loss of our national sovereignty in the Land of Israel. While after the destruction of the First Temple we were fortunate to return to the land after 70 years, after the destruction of the Second Temple our exile lasted 1,900 years (and some say continues until the Third Temple is rebuilt). For 2,600 years we have looked at the destruction from a dual perspective. On one hand, we have seen it as a reminder of the errors of our ways, the need to take responsibility for our actions in community. On the other, we have seen it as a call for a return to our core values as a people. In this sense, the period of the three weeks mirrors the period of the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that also have us look at ourselves self-critically with a goal to improving our individual way of being in the world.
The traditions of Tisha B’Av mirror those of Yom Kippur, except that since the former is not a holy day mentioned in the Torah, one is allowed to work — to drive, to use electronic devices, to use money and so forth. Its other restrictions are the same as on Yom Kippur: for 25 hours no eating, no drinking, no sexual relations, no bathing or anointing, and no wearing of leather shoes. We come to synagogue evening, morning and afternoon to hear the words of Scripture, particularly the prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah, particularly the latter’s haunting words in the book of Lamentations, or Eicha. Their teachings have been enshrined within the prayers of our tradition, written over the last thousands of years: “because of our sins we have been exiled from our land”. Indeed, this entire period, culminating on Tisha B’Av, is one of reflection on how we, as a people and a nation, have failed to live up to our values as Jews.
The prophets of old are quite clear as to what they understand those values to be. On the Shabbat of Devarim – Chazon, always the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, it is made clear. While ritual may be necessary to live one’s life as a fully engaged Jew, it is by no means sufficient. In fact, ritual without ethics has no meaning. One’s connection to God is expressed first and foremost in one’s connection to one’s fellow human beings. As Isaiah says in his “chazon”, or prophecy:
“Wash yourselves clean;
put your evil doings away from My sight.
Cease to do evil; learn to do good.
Devote yourselves to justice;
aid the wronged.
Uphold the rights of the orphan;
defend the cause of the widow.”
Jeremiah concludes Lamentations as follows (a phrase now entered into our Torah service): “Hashivenu Adonai Eleikha – Take us back, O Lord, to Yourself, and let us come back; renew our days as of old”. We must remember that the way back to God is through God’s creatures.
Just as we teach on Yom Kippur that there is none on earth who does only good and never sins, this day of Tisha B’Av gives us the opportunity on a communal level – thinking of how we as Jews behave in Israel, the States, New Jersey and at CBTBI – to look at those actions for which we need to repent, and those ways we wish to improve.