Author's Note on Shabbat Chazon 2002

Author's Note on Shabbat Chazon

Date: July 13, 2002
4 Av 5762

This Wednesday night and Thursday marks Tisha B’Av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar.  Tisha B’Av is one of six public fast days, including Yom Kippur, the Fast of Esther, the 10th of Tevet, 17th of  Tammuz, and Tzom Gedaliah.  Just like Yom Kippur, Tisha B’Av is a 24 hour fast; but the focus of our fast, indeed the focus of the entire three-week period from the 17th of Tammuz to Tisha B’Av is one of mourning.

In large part, the mourning period commemorates the events that led to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.  However, this year in particular, Tisha B’Av teaches us something very significant about our role as Jews.  Of course, the emphasis on this year refers to the events we call 9/11. 

Consider this:  September 11 represents the 11th day of the 9th month in the secular calendar and Tisha B’Av represents the 9th day of the 11th month in the Jewish calendar (measured from Tishrei).  Even more, September 11 corresponds to the 23d day of Elul in the Jewish calendar.  The one-year anniversary (the yahrzeit) for the Jewish victims of September 11 will occur on August 31 this year.  On the night of August 31, we will recite Selichot prayers in advance of Rosh Hashanah.  So this year, now that our country’s tragedy, indeed the world’s tragedy, is so closely and forever connected to the day that commemorates Jewish tragedy, we must re-dedicate ourselves to our role in this world.

To understand the significance of Tisha B’Av and its message to us, consider our tradition.  In each generation, Tisha B’Av marked tragedies that affected the Jewish people and the entire world.  Of course, we mourn the destruction of the first and second Temples; but we also commemorate the expulsion of Jews from England and from Spain as well as the deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka in 1942.  We even mark the beginning of World War I when Germany declared war on Russia on August 1, 1914, which happened to be Tisha B’Av that year.

Nevertheless, focusing on tragedies that occurred on Tisha B’Av is a distraction.  Tisha B’Av is not the Jewish equivalent of Friday the 13th.  We do not believe that terrible events happen to us because it happens to be Tisha B’Av.  Indeed, as the prophets proclaimed, our personal “destruction” began spiritually long before the Temple’s physical destruction.  Yet, as we have seen during this past year, our physical destruction often occurs due to events over which we seemingly have no control and for reasons we cannot understand.  All that seems to be left for us in the immediate aftermath is to mourn and try to gain some sense of strength through our collective sorrow.  We mourn and fast for the tragedies as well as the futility of our efforts to forestall them.

But that is not the real purpose of our fasting.  So why do we fast and mourn over these various events?  In a nutshell, fasting and our mourning ritual is a three part process that actually can be analogized to how we relate to the Internet. First, we must make a connection.  Next, we have to determine and affirm that we have the correct information.  Finally, we download the information so we can do something with it.  Let’s see how this plays out in the context of our fast.

Making the connection.  Fasting is not the same as not eating.  In this sense, we are reminded of Isaiah’s words in this week’s Haftorah – Isaiah asks in G-d’s name, “Why do I need your sacrifices?”  Similarly, in the Haftorah for Yom Kippur morning, Isaiah describes the sacrifices of people who have not followed G’d’s commandments.  They complain, “Why did you not see when we fasted?  We afflicted ourselves but You ignored it!” 

G-d then answers “Because on your fast day, you sought out personal desires and you oppressed all whom you aggrieved!  Because you fast with grievance and strife, and strike with a wicked fist; you do not fast as befits this day, to make your voice heard above.”

If our fasting becomes part of a quick diet, if we “bulk up” before a fast to make it easy, if we spend our afternoon wondering how and when we will break the fast, then what good is our fasting?  If we stop eating voluntarily on the 9th of Av and refuse to help those who involuntarily go hungry on the 10th of Av and thereafter, what did we learn from our abstinence?  Meaningless ritual dishonors at once both our faith and ourselves.

Through our fast and through our rituals, we voluntarily deprive ourselves physically to focus on spiritual matters.  We try to connect to G-d and what G-d wants from us in ways that are impossible when we are absorbed with our daily routines.  We are reminded that sometimes life is not all about us and what we need right now.  We are supposed to be a light unto the nations and, in the words of a 1995 syndicated column, “You can’t be a beacon if your light don’t shine.”  So fasting is much more than not eating – it’s an opportunity to connect ourselves to something much greater than ourselves.

Affirming/Finding the Right Information or Message.  Once we make this initial personal connection to our spiritual mission, we are ready to progress to the next part of the process – finding the correct spiritual “web page.”  Mourning rituals are deliberately interjected into the calendar even if there are no tragedies, we are otherwise successful, and life is great. Why is that? Why do we stop everything going on in our lives to remember past tragedies?  We do this at weddings by breaking a glass.  We do this by leaving part of a new home unfinished in commemoration of the Temple.  Why?

As Rabbi Irving Greenberg pointed out with respect to Tisha B’Av, “The very depth of the defeat [marked by Tisha B’Av] made it necessary to make a counter-statement of hope.”  As Jews, we learn to deal with tragedy not by ignoring it, not by resigning ourselves to its inevitability, and not by giving in to despair because the terrorists are in control of our fate.  No.  By incorporating the memory of tragic events into even our most successful and happy times, by making that connection between ourselves and our tradition, we find that we are making an affirmative statement to the world that we believe that Judaism’s message of Tikkun Olam – a better world created through our own efforts – will not be dimmed by the seeming inevitability of tragedies.

Doing Something With Our Message.  Once we step back from the treadmill of our physical lives and connect to G-d spiritually and we are prepared to make that affirmative statement of our belief in Tikkun Olam, we are ready for the third stage of our fast.   A key part of this process includes raising our voices to G-d and demanding that G-d stop the destruction.  In the words of Psalm 94, we must demand of G-d “Ad motai reshaim ya’alozu; How long will the wicked rejoice? … They slay the widow and the stranger and they murder the orphans.  They say ‘G-d will not see, nor will the G‑d of Jacob understand.’” So we ask “Will the one who implants the ear not hear or will the one who forms the eye not see?” 

In fact, this tradition of demanding an end to suffering dates back to Abraham who never accepted G-d’s destruction of Sodom and who argued with G-d over the impending destruction by asking “Shall the judge of all the earth not do justice?”

But it is not just that we argue with G-d.  Before we can do that, we have to have what lawyers call “standing.”  Although we usually think that you don’t need much of a case to sue someone (you just need a crafty lawyer), you do need standing.  If you and I never met and we never interacted with each other, I can’t sue you because you broke the arm of an unrelated third person.  I have no standing; I have no relationship to you, the person whose arm is broken, or the entire event that caused the injury.

To have standing to argue with G-d about what is happening in the world, we have to be prepared to do something about it.  Our role in this world is not just to stop eating periodically or to fly a flag, cancel our newspaper subscriptions, or wear multi-colored ribbons, as meaningful as these symbols are.  As Jews we have a much deeper obligation to help repair this world by participating in actions that G-d has demanded of us and only then turning back to G-d and demanding an end to our suffering. 

In the book of Jonah, we read that when Jonah finally delivered G-d’s message to the people of Nineveh, they donned sackcloth and ashes and fasted; but they also turned back from their evil ways.  We then read that G-d saw their deeds and relented from causing their destruction.  The rabbis teach that what caused G-d to call off the destruction was not the fasting and mourning, it was the actions that the people took beyond mere fasting, to change their behavior. 

It is interesting to note that the Talmud does not describe the destruction of the Temple on Tisha B’Av as being caused by a homicidal Roman army or some ancient version of Al Queida.  If that were the case, the response would be to turn around and kill the enemy and then celebrate how our enemy was vanquished; problem solved.  Instead, the focus and message of Tisha B’Av is on us – what can we do now and in response to these events to improve our world? 

As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in the aftermath of World War II, “Let Fascism not serve as an alibi for our conscience.  We have failed to fight for right, for justice, for goodness; as a result we must fight against wrong, against injustice, against evil.  We have failed to offer sacrifices on the altar of peace; now we must offer sacrifices on the altar of war.”

So through a proper understanding of our Tisha B’Av fast, we have the ability and obligation to change the world.  We do that by first taking the time to fast and connect to G-d; second by then re-affirming and gaining a deeper understanding of our role and mission in this world; and third by taking that information and acting upon it to change our behavior and how we relate to the world around us.

Now I understand that not everyone is ready to set aside a long summer day of fasting in the middle of the week; particularly when it is something you have not done before.  Should you fast on Tisha B’Av?  Of course.  But even if you don’t, I ask you to take some time, particularly this Thursday, to remember that there is a difference between fasting and not eating.  In other words, even if you have to eat, try to fast anyway.  Take some time to stop and remember that Judaism offers us a way to realize the triumph of our hopes over our despair.

To repeat the words of Isaiah from this week’s Haftorah – “Why do I need your numerous sacrifices?” asks G-d.  Instead, “learn to do good, seek justice, strengthen the victim, do justice for the orphan, take up the cause of the widow.”  Then, and only then, will Zion be “redeemed with justice and her returnees with righteousness.”