To believe that marking the days is no longer necessary because we are back in our land bespeaks a profound lack of historical awareness and ignorance of both the big picture, and ironically, the very context of today’s events.
Both days contain within them a microcosm of the calamities that have befallen our People: the destruction of both the First and Second Temple, and various way stations leading up to those catastrophes. In addition, in more modern times we have the final expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290 and from Spain in 1492, and amazingly, some say the launching of both WWI and II.
But it is the destruction of the Temples, and the unspeakable void and bereft-ness that followed, which embodies this period.
Our sense of loss is immanent, meaning as if it just occurred. It hurts in the way of a remembered tragedy, and it resonates as if we ourselves experienced it.
This sense of the intimacy of loss has been famously captured in the apocryphal story of Napoleon walking past a synagogue on Tisha B’Av and hearing wailing coming from within. He reputedly asks one of his aides why the crying, and is told that the Jews are bewailing the destruction of their Temple in Jerusalem.
When Napoleon asks and is informed as to when this destruction occurred, he is said to have remarked,
“A nation that cries and fasts for over 1,800 years for their land and Temple will surely be rewarded with their Temple.”
Whether true or not, it sums up both our intensity of loss, and the reality that it bespoke to the outside world.
Fast forward some 200 years from the Napoleonic vignette, and close to a majority of the world’s Jews find themselves now living in a sovereign Jewish country, replete with a Jewish language, calendar and army.
Napoleon was onto something important in his appreciation of the tenacity of Jewish longing. If not a Temple, we have been rewarded with the restoration of the sovereign life which the Temple crowned in days of yore.
Given this miraculous restoration of our national life, how are we to mark this period, especially the upcoming Tisha B’Av? Not surprisingly, we see a spectrum of differing opinions, ranging from why change anything to why continue at all?
I believe neither of these bookend perspectives is correct nor appropriate. To not have in mind the reality of the great renaissance and restoration is to both show ingratitude and to encourage a certain sanctimoniousness.
To believe that marking the days is no longer necessary bespeaks a profound lack of historical awareness, and ignorance of both the big picture, and ironically, the very context that makes our contemporary situation so incredible.
Marking these days is very important, despite the beneficial change in our existential situation. We are the product of the triumphs and travails of our ancestors and we gratefully acknowledge our debt to them through an empathetic association with the tragedies that befell our people.
More importantly, I believe that these days provide a great opportunity for searing self- reflection. Precisely because we are back in analogous situations to those of our ancestors who lost the two Temples, it is incumbent on us to study their experiences and to figure out how not to repeat the tragic mistakes that led to these calamities.
Happily, we live in a world where idol worship is not a burning challenge (though some would say that we have created other kinds of non-corporeal idols that we worship) as it was during the period of the First Temple.
However, the accusatory rationale for the destruction of the Second Temple – sinat hinam, baseless hatred – seems all too familiar. Despite widespread Torah study and observance, the Jewish People were divided, disrespectful and rooted in the absolute certainty of their own beliefs and convictions.
Can we hear and study this without a sense of dread?
Can we possibly think we have moved to a place of greater respect and accommodation?
Have we not learned anything from our history?
Dare we not do better?
The Three Weeks stand therefore as an exercise in humility, of recognizing our shortfalls, and in understanding that we too will be held accountable for our own behaviors.
Having merited the restoration of our national life, may we also merit the ability to learn from our mistakes, to internalize them, and to understand that these tragedies are not just worthy of reflection and remorse because they happened, but also because they are powerful object lessons for how we need to live today.