TISHA B’AV, Time of Caution, 2005

In blazing anger God has cut down all the might of Israel;
God has withdrawn God’s right hand in the presence of the enemy;
God has ravaged Jacob like flaming fire, consuming on all sides.
Lamentations 2:3

Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, is known as a black fast. Unlike Yom Kippur, a white fast that connects us to the highest within ourselves, the Ninth of Av marks both the destruction of the first temple by the Babylonians in 586 b.c.e. and the second Temple in 70 c.e. In the second obliteration, 25 percent of the Jewish population died; thousands were sold into slavery. Besides fasting from sundown to sundown, Jews sit on the ground, a sign of mourning, and recite Eicha [Lamentations]] and the mournful liturgy of the day.

The tradition claims that God created this day of grief because of the spies sent by Moses into Canaan. They returned full of fear and negativity, claiming that the Israelites were grasshoppers compared to the might of the Canaanites. Their lack of faith and infectious negativity doomed the people to wander forty years in the desert without entering the promised land.

On a day so dark that it carries the unique prohibition even to study Torah–only the Book of Job and parts of Jeremiah are allowed–we remember a shocking story that the rabbis tell about why the second temple was destroyed. The first destruction occurred because the people didn’t keep the laws, but by the time of the second temple they were observant. Obviously law is not enough to make peace: this temple was destroyed because of sinat hinam, causeless hatred.

A wealthy man planned a lavish banquet in Jerusalem and his secretary mistakenly invited Bar Kamsa instead of Kamsa. The host, who hated Bar Kamsa, couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw saw him at the door. He ordered him to leave. Bar Kamsa, embarrassed, begged the host to let him stay until he finished his meal. When the man refused, he pleaded that he would pay for his meal, he would even pay for the whole banquet to avoid humiliation. But the man stubbornly insisted that he leave at once. He grabbed Bar Kamsa and threw him out of his house.

Although there were many rabbis attending the banquet, no one stopped the host from his cruel behavior, and Bar Kamsa inferred that they sided with the host. In revenge, Bar Kamsa went to the Caesar and told him that the Jews were plotting a revolt. The rabbis, no longer able to be bystanders, fell into furious disagreement that ultimately led to the Romans destroying the temple and sending the Jewish people into exile for 2000 years.

This horrible sequence of events took place 2000 years ago in the ironically named City of Peace. Two individuals demonstrated the all too often truth: animosity breeds animosity. When we forget that God carries thirteen names for loving kindness and that we are called to bring heaven to earth by behaving with love, we risk not only harming our own spiritual connection but the world itself.

Beyond fasting and praying:

Read Lamentations. The warrior language, which may cause you to flinch, is an opportunity to respond, not react. Rather than hearing it as an endorsement of violence or one more reason to reject Torah, perhaps we can understand it as holy horror of a society that has grown indifferent to the suffering of others, i.e. an indictment of bystanders.

Think about personal Tisha B’av moments when you felt destroyed, desolate, and disconnected from spirit. Collective mourning in which we as a people claim our responsibility in allowing harm to the community by not standing for justice and mercy can help us face ourselves individually. Have we lost a friendship because self-righteousness, stubbornness, and fear? Have we ever demonized another? Do we cultivate a garden of peace within ourselves by sowing empathy and forgiveness?

Some of us believe that the messiah will be born on Tisha B’Av, the one who will lead us to a world where no one is hungry, war is memory, and none shall fear another. Out of destruction can come redemption, but only if we are honest with ourselves.

Support every effort for peace locally and globally. Behavior is contagious, and peace breeds peace.