When I was a child and I’d ask my father when something was going to happen, he’d answer, “Tisha B’Av.” Since few of us ever went to temple between Shavuot and Rosh Hashanah, I had no idea when or what the mysterious day was. Tonight, you’ll be among the elect who will know of the power, importance, and date of Tisha B’Av.
You’re all sitting and breathing so easy on this wonderful Santa Fe summer’s evening, you’ve sung so sweetly you’ve turned the night into Shabbat, and thanks to so many in our congregation, the temple is running full speed ahead in the present and preparation for High Holidays. I hate to tell you this. Despite all the apparent peace of the moment, this is is a time of great caution, even of danger. The three weeks preceding Tisha B’Av, which falls this Wednesday evening, is a season of grief. From the 17th of Tammuz until the ninth of the Jewish month, Tisha B’Av, the Talmud cautions us to exercise restraint, deliberation, and patience. We are forbidden to hit a child, and we are encouraged to watch our words with each other, because these are the days that preceded the shattering destruction of the Temple 2000 years ago. Raymond Chandler wrote of this time in California, when the Santa Ana winds blow, that docile housewives finger the sharpness of the knife they hold to cut an onion and they look at their husbands’ necks. The arrow is in the air, it has left the bow, we cannot control its flight, no one knows where it will land, and so we watch and listen carefully, conserve our energy at the hottest time of the year, and recognize that despite air conditioning, we are of the earth, and the seasons touch our mood and spirit.
With the first of Av, the mourning intensifies until the ninth day. Tisha B’Av is called the Black Fast. By contrast, Yom Kippur is a joyful fast. We wear white, we make believe we’re angels by not needing food, drink, sex, or any physical comfort. But this is a fast of deep grief. Orthodox practice prohibits the eating of meat and drinking of wine. No swimming either. The saying goes, “When Av begins, cut back joy.” Home construction and painting is held off (who can think about fixing up the house at the time when the Temple was destroyed?). Haircuts, weddings, or buying something new that might inspire a shehiyanu are also forbidden. These are the same deprivations that take place when we mourn a death of a loved one.
Why was the ninth of Av a tragedy to be remembered so keenly? Not only was the Temple destroyed by the Romans in response to a Jewish revolt for independence. Not only did 25 percent of the Jewish population die in that tragic war of independence and hundreds of thousands of Jews were sold into slavery. The Temple was God’s house on earth. Judaism was finished without the Temple. Some Jews assimilated into Hellenism, others became devotees of the Jesus movement. For those who remained Jews, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai offered a new Judaism, one that didn’t depend upon animal sacrifices and only one sacred place.
In the stench of ashes and and desolation of Jerusalem, R. Yochanan said, yes! We still live! The Temple’s destruction only means that we need to find a new way to draw close to God and keep hope alive for the day when all will live in peace. Where will God dwell? the people asked. Yochanan said, “Between us. We will rebuild the Temple by filling the spaces between us with loving kindness.” Sometimes we cannot love, sometimes we cannot pray, sometimes we cannot believe. Yet if we behave with kindness, our homes and our houses of study and prayer will become little sanctuaries that will shelter and bring forth the best , the holy, within us.
The historical explanation for Tisha B’Av I’ve already given. But the rabbis knew it wasn’t the wicked Romans alone that destroyed the Temple. They said, “The first time the Temple was destroyed it was because the people had abandoned the laws. But the second time the people kept the laws. So why did it happen? (Cosbi and Zimri story).
Last Shabbat Ben spoke of the mitzvah to love the stranger. Other than keeping the laws of animal sacrifice that are still on the books, there may be no more impossible commandment than this. We have trouble loving those closest to us let alone the stranger. So our pragmatic, insightful tradition gives us more than feelings and creed to work with, it gives us the deed. Welcome the stranger within your gates. Include the excluded. That’s the first step. Maybe one day I’ll come to love the new face; in the meantime I’ll behave with loving kindness, a preferable alternative, I believe, to Temple sacrifices.
Feelings are important, yet they aren’t the whole truth of things. Just for tonight, I invite you to join in a causeless goodness oneg. Sacrifice the pleasure of talking with your friends the entire oneg. I invite you to experiment with stretching to reach one whom you may prefer not to meet. Look around the room and catch where your eyes jump over a face. Sacrifice your shyness, your belonging, just for a moment, and say hello. Who knows? Maybe if each of us gave our best, we’d wake up tomorrow and understand for the first time the meaning of peace.