ONLY THE LIVING CAN REMEMBER.
On Tishah B’Av, remembering is the rule. Tragedies happened, and we have to remember them. Not just the destruction of the Temple, indeed both Temples, but the long procession of calamities that accompanied all the ages.
Every time of year has its historical memories; every day could well have been appointed as a national Yahrzeit; but Tishah B’Av brings all the catastrophes together. Maimonides says in his Hil’chot Evel (13:11-12) that one who does not remember and mourn for the calamities is a cruel character. And yet one can overdo the mourning. After a bereavement there are stages in mourning, and by the end of the first year the mourner must pick him- or herself up and get back into life.
The real tragedy is when there is no-one to remember. I often wandered through the Jewish part of Rookwood Cemetery when I was a rabbi in Sydney, and I would sadly note how many people had no living relative to say Kaddish and keep the Yahrzeit.
This emphasises the value of Tishah B’Av, as the occasion for the whole Jewish people to remember and mourn for the martyrs of the generations. The martyrs can never be forgotten so long as our people remembers.
BRING US BACK
When the Torah is returned to the Ark we sing the words,
“Hashivenu HaShem elecha v’nashuvah: chaddesh yamenu k’kedem” –
“Bring us back to You, O Lord, and we shall return – renew our days as they were”.
The words come from the end of M’gillat Echah (Lam. 5:21), which of course is read on Tishah B’Av. In Echah we have the prophet Jeremiah speaking on behalf of the people. They have lost their Temple and their land and they yearn to come back to God’s city and House and to live a life without the enemy and the exile. A sentiment that completely fits in to the theme and mood of Echah – but what is it doing in the Siddur?
It is an assertion of our belief that Israel, the land, the people and the faith are all interwoven: if God brings us back to the land, then the faith and the Torah will flourish again.
We well know that the reality as we see it before our eyes is not yet complete, but there is already so much Torah in Israel that no-one can deny that we are on the road to the fulfilment of the hope of the ages. We bring the Torah back to the Ark and imply,
“God, help us to bring the Torah to every corner of the Land of Israel”.
We can also read into the words of “Hashivenu” the prayer that we may be enabled to bring the Torah to every corner of the Jewish people. There will be some who will always resist being mitzvah-observant, but let their non-observance at least be based on knowledge of what it is that they do not observe. If they choose not to believe, let them at least know what it is that they do not want to believe in.
KAMTZA & BAR KAMTZA
The Talmudic story (Gittin 55b/56a) is well known. Because of a mix-up between two men of similar name was the Temple laid waste, according to the sages. A host wanted Kamtza at his party but Bar Kamtza mistakenly received the invitation and was pushed out in the sight of the whole assemblage.
The Talmud says that God himself supported Bar Kamtza because He was shocked that one person could publicly embarrass another.
The rabbis say that a society in which people failed to respect one another did not deserve to survive (Yoma 9b).
BURNING THE BOOKS.
The liturgy for Tishah B’Av is built around melancholy dirges that lament an age-long series of calamities.
They include a 13th-century poem by Me’ir of Rothenburg. Titled “Sha’ali S’rufah BaEsh” –
“Ask, O you who have been burnt by fire”.
It does not weep for the Temple or even for the martyrs who lost their lives for the sanctification of the Divine Name. It is simply concerned with the burning of books.
Of course Jewish tradition always regarded books as living beings, to be treated with respect, never destroyed but to be given honoured burial when their life came to an end. So mourning for books came naturally to Jews. Yet why bother to think about burnt books when there were so many burnt bodies?
On one level, the books destroyed by rapacious enemies were themselves martyrs. Generally their authors were too, because when human life is cheap, no-one is going to want to save authors or artists.
Me’ir of Rothenburg took upon himself the sacred task of memorialising the books destroyed in his time when on 17 June, 1242, the mobs – incited by Nicholas Donin, an apostate Jew, and approved by Pope Gregory IX and the King of France – threw 24 cartloads of Hebrew manuscripts onto the flames in a Paris square.
“Sha’ali S’rufah BaEsh” could equally have been written for the seven centuries of holocausts of Jewish books that extended to the Nazi attack on Jewish religious and cultural treasures in which at least three million Jewish books were destroyed. Not merely because they were martyrs, though that was ample reason for mourning. Not merely because in a cold, hostile world, books were often a Jew’s only friends. But because our enemies feared these books.
They represented independent, even deviationist thinking. They represented defiance. They were a threat to the a-morality in which nothing was sacred – neither conscience, nor life itself. These books passed judgment on the enemy. They had to be eliminated.
Yet the Talmud tells a story which offers the best eulogy for the burnt books. Rabbi Chananya ben T’radyon was martyred by the Romans. Wrapped in the Torah scroll from which he had been teaching, he was thrown onto the flames. His pupils, powerless to save him, called,
“Master, what do you see?”
His answer was:
“Burning parchments, but letters flying upwards!”
Centuries of book-burners may have destroyed the parchments, but the message of the books is indestructible.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. Now retired and lives in Jerusalem.