Saturday night and Sunday, August 6/7, many Jews will pause to commemorate the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av. Though the 9th of Av is, actually, Shabbat this year, observance of this memorial date – associated with the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, in 586 B.C.E. and 70 C.E., respectively – is deferred until after Shabbat. Over time, the 9th of Av came to be associated with such calamities as the Crusades (which were not infrequently accompanied by death and destruction for Jews, particularly in the Rhineland) and expulsion from Spain.
This date of collective memory is traditionally marked by fasting and various mourning practices. At night, the Biblical book of Eichah, ascribed to the prophet Jeremiah, who foretold the destruction of the First Temple, is read. During the day, assorted dirges/lamentations mostly authored by medieval Hebrew poets, are recited, recalling destruction of the Temples as well as tragedies before and subsequent to the events of 586 B.C.E. and 70 C.E.
What “take-aways” might one draw from collective memory of tragic, dramatic turning points in Jewish history? What actions might these memories inspire? What follows are simply one person’s reflections on this question, a question to which, I hope, others will, likewise, give thought.
I will suggest that, at this time and place in Jewish history, there are, at least, two fundamental take-aways to consider. One relates to kedushah, holiness/sanctification. The 9th of Av, above all, commemorates the loss of the Beit HaMikdash (Temple), the place where our Judean ancestors felt most connected to God’s presence. What can or does the pursuit of holiness mean in a post-Temple era? The second relates to the renewal of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel after a period of 2000 years. What, amidst dirges of destruction, exile, and powerlessness, might this mean for those of us living in the United States, today?
The Book of Exodus instructs the Israelites to become a “holy nation” (19:6). In the Book of Leviticus, a wide-ranging set of teachings gives expression to the summons to become holy. Summarizing directives of chapter 19 of that book, Bible scholar Jacob Milgrom writes: “Respect your mother and father. Make one day every week separate from the others and separate it with your rest. When you reap your harvest, always leave a segment for the poor and the lonely. Deal honestly with all those you encounter. Pay people their wages before they go home at night, so they should not want for money or food. Judge others fairly and love your neighbor as yourself. Remember that you were a stranger in the land of Egypt and treat the stranger as a citizen.” Commenting that this road to kedushah (sanctification, holiness) spoke powerfully to the ancient Israelites, Milgrom aptly adds: “the directives speak powerfully to us as we wonder how to make our own lives unique and meaningful.”
At various times in Jewish history, “Kiddush HaShem,” sanctifying the name of God, has been associated with martyrdom. The Torah, however, and subsequent, rabbinic literature, emphasize ways of living that manifest the holiness toward which all Israel is to strive. Amplifying on the theme of Godly conduct, the Talmud records:
Rabbi Hama, son of Rabbi Hanina, said: What is the meaning of the verse, ‘You shall walk behind the Lord your God’ (Deut. 13:5)?’...A person should imitate the righteous ways of the Holy One, blessed be He. Just as the Lord clothed the naked,…so too you must supply clothes for the naked. Just as the Holy One, blessed be He, visited the sick,…so too you should visit the sick. Just as the Holy One, blessed be He, buried the dead,…so too you must bury the dead. Just as the Holy One, blessed be He, comforted mourners,…so too you should comfort mourners (Sotah 14a).
Though the Temple no longer stands, avenues for realizing the holiness that the Temple and its rituals inspired are open to all of us. The Jerusalem Talmud relates that Shimon ben Shetah, a scholar who lived during the second century B.C.E., purchased a donkey from an Ishmaelite (someone who was not Jewish). The owner had, inadvertently, left a precious stone under the saddle. When Shimon insisted on returning this treasure, the owner exclaimed: “Blessed is the God of Shimon ben Shetah” (Jerusalem Talmud, Bava Metzia, Chapter 2, 8c). Kedushah, Godliness, is behaved in acts of everyday living. Though the Beit HaMidash is in ruins, the 9th of Av is a summons to find meaningful, available paths toward a life of kedushah. In addition to positive acts, this surely includes avoiding the sorts of senseless conflicts and intrastrife that the Talmud identifies as having led to the destruction of the Second Temple.
A second dimension of contemporary meaning embedded in this day of memory relates to the privilege of living at a time of renewal of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel. While, in the United States, Jews represent about two percent of the general population, in Israel, Jews constitute 73% of the country’s more than nine million inhabitants. Israel’s Proclamation of Independence (May 14, 1948) – as the British withdrew from Palestine, five and a half months following the United Nations’ decision to partition Palestine to a Jewish State and an Arab State – affirmed that
The State of Israel will be open to the immigration of Jews from all countries of their dispersion; will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew Prophets; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture; will safeguard the sanctity and inviolability of the shrines and Holy Places of all religions; and will dedicated itself to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
The reality of a sovereign Jewish state committed to “the precepts…taught by the Hebrew Prophets” is far different from that of living as a Jew in any other setting.
During a visit to Israel a number of years ago, I visited the Supreme Court. As proceedings were open to the public, I entered a court room to get a sense of Israeli judicial procedure. To my fascination, the hearing I attended related to the claim of an Arab farmer who was petitioning the court to order the re-routing of a security fence recently placed, by government order, on his property, separating one portion of his land from another. While acknowledging state security interests, his claim was that security interests could be met by modifying placement of the security barrier. Though I don’t know the resolution of that particular case, it represents one aspect of the unique circumstances of Jewish sovereignty. Reconciling public and private needs in a manner consistent with “the precepts…taught by the Hebrew prophets” is a matter that only arises in the State of Israel which references the Hebrew prophets in framing its guiding principles.
The demands of realpolitik and aspirational visions are often in tension. The opportunity of building a society that can, at the same time, ensure the security of its citizens in a challenging environment and reflect the ideals articulated in the Proclamation of Independence is an extraordinary, continuing project. To contribute to this project – even from a distance – is a privilege that few generations of Jews have enjoyed; the 9th of Av reminds us that it is a privilege not to be taken for granted.