By Shlomo Riskin
Curiously, our Sages refer to Tisha B’Av as a festival, a “Mo’ed.” How could this be? After all, it is the date on which both Temples were destroyed! And in contrast to the other fast days marking the destruction of Jerusalem, which span “merely” from sunrise to sunset, Tisha B’Av lasts for an entire 25 hours, during which time we express an intensity of mourning for Jerusalem unmatched during the rest of the year.
The paradoxical quality of this utterly solemn yet fundamentally celebratory day finds practical expression in Jewish Law, where Rabbi Yosef Karo, author of Shulchan Aruch – the Code of Jewish Law – rules that on Tisha B’Av, we do not recite the somber supplication prayers of Tachanun, or the penitential Selichot that define our other fast days, “because Tisha B’Av is called a ‘Mo’ed’” [festival, based on a homiletic explanation by our Sages to Lamentations 1:15].
Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, in his Aruch Hashulchan, explains that the basis for this festival-like quality of Tisha B’Av is the Divine promise that, ultimately, days of mourning will be transformed into joyous festivals and holidays [cf. Zech. 8:19].
I suggest a complementary view, based on a verse from this week’s Torah portion, Va’etchanan. Moses provides a quintessential outline of Jewish history: settlement of Israel, corruption and idolatry, assimilation, destruction and exile. But these tragedies will be followed by our eventual return to God and His land, because “the Lord your God is a compassionate God who will not forget the covenant with your forbears which He has sworn to them” (Deut. 4:25–31, 38).
Indeed, we read these very verses on the day of Tisha B’Av itself, the day on which we commemorate the destruction of the Temples, the loss of our national sovereignty; and we remember at the same time that, although our sacred shrines and even our sacred cities were destroyed, our nation was not!
And so the seed for our ultimate rejoicing on the Ninth of Av is firmly planted in the ringing declaration, “when it shall be difficult for you, these words [Heb.: “devarim”] will find you…and you shall return” (Deut. 4:30). The promise of Tisha B’Av is the fact that even as God allowed the Temple’s “wood and stone” to be destroyed, He kept the Jewish people and our covenant alive, promising ultimate return and redemption.
I translate the Hebrew “devarim” in this context as “words” – the words of the Torah will find you in the depths of your exile and will cause you to still retain your identity as Jews even without your homeland and Temple – because the relationship between Israel and the words of the Torah is the true miracle of Tisha B’Av. It is what enabled us to live despite the physical destruction; no mortal force could ever destroy the Divine words! The parchment may burn to the ground, but the letters fly aloft and live eternally. The letters lived – and so the nation lived – despite the physical destruction of Tisha B’Av.
I first learned to translate it that way in 1965, when Lincoln Square Synagogue was in a small apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I began to notice a gentleman enter the back of the synagogue towards the end of the Torah reading, remain standing near the door, and quickly leave after the sermon. On the Sabbath of Va’etchanan, he came towards the beginning of the reading – and as the aforementioned words were read, he fled from the synagogue in tears.
I ran out after him, and caught up with him. I discovered that he came from a family of pious Satmar Hasidim. After living through the hell of Auschwitz, he gave up on God. Nevertheless, when our apartment synagogue opened, he became strongly attracted to the services, despite his present self but in deepest recognition of his truest self. He explained that when he heard the Torah reader call out “When it shall be difficult for you, all of these words will find you…and you shall return,” he knew he could no longer escape his past or his destiny. From then on, he came to shul not only every Sabbath, but also every morning.
In our generation, one’s estrangement from Judaism is more likely to be the result of a thoroughly assimilated upbringing rather than persecution and theological rebellion. The spiritual decimation of the Jewish People in contemporary diaspora is truly worthy of mourning.
But on this Sabbath of Comfort [“Shabbat Nachamu”] we can find solace that the words of the Torah have the power to find every Jew, no matter how disconnected from his or her roots, and inspire them back to the destiny of the Jewish People. Indeed, embedded within the destruction symbolized by Tisha B’Av is God’s promise of return and redemption.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.