Tisha B’Av 5773: what will you fast for?

Is this the fast I want – bowing down the head and sitting on sackcloth and ashes? Is this an acceptable fast? 

Is not this the fast I have chosen: 

To break open the bonds of the “I can’t help it” excuse of habitual evil, 

to undo the yoke and let the oppressed go free, 

and that you work to undo every such yoke? 

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, 

make room for the poor in your own household economy, 

when you see the naked, to clothe them, 

and refuse to turn away from your own kin?    (Isaiah 58.5-7) 

A hallmark of any thoughtful learning approach to Jewish tradition refuses to dismiss the wisdom of our ancestors as meaningless to us, but to respect it as the expression of human beings as thoughtful as we to their lives and their experiences. Tisha B’Av is a good case in point: it is the major day of mourning for the entire Jewish people, yet it is difficult for many of us to understand how to relate to this part of our inheritance.

Tisha B’Av marks the destruction of the Jewish nation and the advent of nearly 2000 years of Jewish exile. But in 1948 the Jewish state was re-established, and all the wanderers are now able to come home. Either because we do not live in Israel, or perhaps simply because our own personal experience of life is so far from the pain and vulnerability of that Exile our ancestors knew, this day seems far from us. 

To observe Tisha B’Av as if nothing happened is disrespectful to the struggles of those who established the Jewish state.

But to advocate discarding this observance opens us to the question: when does the memory of loss and its sadness end?

In its own day, the Temple’s destruction – which was also the destruction of the Jewish people; we suffered terrible loss – was as significant for us, then, as the Holocaust is in our own day. When we commemorate the Holocaust, often the question is asked of us: how shall we live, that it never happen again?

In a very powerful way, Tisha B’Av is also a necessary moment for us to experience as we move toward Yom Kippur. It has been said that if Yom Kippur is our national moment of personal accounting, then Tisha B’Av is our personal moment of national accounting. What causes the downfall of a society? What can we do to strengthen the ethics of our international Jewish peoplehood?

How shall we appropriately acknowledge Tisha B’Av in the days of a resurrected Jewish state? certainly not by ignoring that fact. And so let us look to Isaiah’s guidance: drop the sackcloth and ashes, never mind the fasting from food. Instead, do something that may very well be more difficult: fast from some behavior that adds to the degradation of our people’s ethical standards.

Fast from talking about others.

Fast from complaining about others.

Fast from harshly judging others.

Fast from your belief that you cannot influence Jewish public life for good.

And acknowledge that your private acts have public consequences.

Act, instead, on the opposite of these evils:

Instead of talking about others, talk to them. Find out how they are really doing, rather than repeating something you’ve heard second-hand. Avoid lashon hara’ – gossip.

Instead of complaining about others, let them know that there is relationship work you’d like to do with them. That’s the Jewish ethic of tokhehah.

Instead of harshly judging others, put a sign on your mirror: Jewish ethics teaches a concept called l’khaf zekhut, which means always give others the benefit of the doubt.

And break your own yoke of cynicism by supporting public Jewish ethics, and living them in your daily choices. Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh – all Israel are responsible, each for each other.

The traditional greeting for Tisha B’Av is tzom kal, may you have an easy fast. 

May you find it easier, for the sake of this day and its lessons, to fast from acts that drag us all down, and choose, instead, acts that lift us all up.

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