Tonight begins the fast of Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, the Jewish collective day of mourning. All the great calamities of Jewish history are collectively ascribed to this day, beginning with the sin of the Golden Calf, continuing through the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, and onward to the expulsion from Spain. Traditional observance includes a 25-hour fast, plus observance of the other rites of mourning (no bathing, no wearing of leather shoes, no sex), plus the extraordinary prohibition of most Torah study (because studying Torah is a joyous activity).
Once upon a time, I found Tisha B’Av deeply moving. Chanting the Book of Lamentations on the floor of my synagogue, I felt the kind of primal connection with other generations across time and space that is so central to Jewish religiosity. Tisha B’Av was a time of longing for a return to wholeness that I longed for on a personal level as well – but also an important corrective to narratives of national grievance and triumphalism, a recognition of essential vulnerability, that God’s will cannot ever truly be known, His favor ever truly assured for any particular moment in time. Lamentations, after all, is just that: a lament, a cry of pain, not an accusation or a confession or a call to arms. And the sole traditional rabbinic text studied on the day is an account of the destruction of the Second Temple that begins with a dispute over a mistaken invitation to a party. Such a narrative is perhaps the subtlest way to undermine the perspective of the zealots of Jerusalem, that all that was needed to prevail was faith and will.