This month, we, as a congregation, will observe Tish’a B’Av. Tish’a B’av is a day of fasting, a day when we remember the destruction of the great Temples in Jerusalem. We are taught that both the first and second Temple in Jerusalem were destroyed on the 9th day of the month of Av on the Hebrew Calendar. Some teach that the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 began that day as well, and even that the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto was completed on that day. Whether or not these dates are chronologically accurate is less important than the fact that we have chosen this day as a day of mourning for when tragedy befell the Jewish people.
When the first Temple, built by Solomon, was destroyed, the faith of the Jewish people was shattered. The house we had built to literally house our God, our infinitely powerful ruler and protector, had fallen to the ground. It is impossible to fully understand the profound effect this must have had on our ancestors as they looked on with anguish, but the words of The Book of Lamentations certainly provide us with insight: “Because of this our hearts are sick, because of these our eyes are dimmed, because of Mount Zion, which lies desolate; jackals prowl over it.”
There was, to be sure, great mourning. But there was also something else—the people began to question God. “Why have you forgotten us?” they asked. This question—one many of us have probably uttered at one time or another—is rooted in the notion that when catastrophe happens, we are somehow at fault. That was certainly the mentality as the temples fell. The destruction of the temples was clearly the result of the Jewish people failing in the eyes of God. We read of this culpability again and again in Lamentations: “My heart is in anguish, I know how wrong I was to disobey.” Some excerpts even go so far as to declare that God was right to allow the temples to be destroyed: “The Lord is in the right, for I have disobeyed him”.
These words of divine justice, and of mourning and sadness, are not foreign to us today. They come to mind when we consider the rising antisemitism in our world, or the bombing and knife attacks against fellow Jews in Europe and in Israel. Just as with the destruction of our temple, we mourn and, like those who came before us, may even be tempted to view the hardships of our people through history and modern times as divine punishment, as an indication that somehow we have lost our way, that we have become too assimilated into secular culture, that we have strayed from the teachings of the Torah. While those who see these tragedies as indications of divine punishment are in good company, for me personally, to do so is to risk losing sight of individual culpability. To explain the murdering of our people and the threats of our oppressors as acts of divine punishment is at once too simple and too abstract for me. When calamity befalls us, should our first reaction be “I have committed a terrible sin”? Is such a reaction even productive?
On Tish’a B’Av, when we remember the great tragedies that our people have suffered, we can certainly spend time analyzing texts for indications of misdoings on the part of the Jewish people. But we might also want to take time to consider the individual misdoings that are actually within our control. Blaming ourselves for the horrible deeds of others is not a productive way of life, psychologically or spiritually. Horrible things happen in this world, some of which are in our control, and many of which are not.
So what does Tish’a B’av mean to me? This holiday is an important time for me to stop and reflect on the misplaced guilt I might be feeling. Before the High Holy Days come rolling in, before I account for all of my wrong doings on Yom Kippur, I like to really think about the guilt I feel for mistakes that are mine to take responsibility for, and the guilt I feel for situations beyond my control. Call it an accounting of your guilt. C’mon, we’re Jewish. We all need something like this. But in all seriousness, this accounting of our guilt is what allows us to move forward so that we can foster healthy relationships with ourselves, with others, and, if you so choose, with God. It is simply too exhausting to assume that everything that happens in life must be our fault, or that when bad things happen, that God must be punishing us. Sure, our guilt might help us to be better people sometimes, but should guilt really be the driving force in our actions? When is the last time you truly enjoyed doing anything out of guilt? The psychological toll guilt takes on us precludes us from ever fully enjoying anything.
Yom Kippur is a wonderful, albeit sometimes painful, time to unburden ourselves of the guilt we rightfully feel for our wrongdoings. But this month, Tish’a B’Av is the time to unburden ourselves of the guilt that shouldn’t be there in the first place. When tragedy happens, our first question shouldn’t be “What have I done to deserve this?” or “Why has God forgotten me?” but rather “What should I do now?” “What should I do now?” removes the onus of responsibility and instead encourages us to move forward. Rather than reliving a painful past looking for answers we will likely never find, this question moves us forward, toward a future more fully in our control.
This Tish’a B’Av, I invite you all to do your own accounting of your guilt. See how it feels to unburden yourself, to let responsibility lay where it rightfully should, and to think more about the promises of the future rather than the tragedies of the past. Yom Kippur will be upon us soon enough. Don’t carry with you more than your fair share of guilt. After all, that’s what our Jewish mothers are for.