Finding the meaning in Tisha B’Av

For many years following Maariv on Tisha B’Av, Dianella Shule has run a program that reflects on tragic events in Jewish history, and personal connections of community members to these events and experiences.  Invariably the stories are humbling, allowing those present to reflect on just how much we can take our freedom and liberty for granted, and how our personal problems often pale into insignificance compared to what other people are fated to endure and overcome.

Tonight, as the world continues to display international apathy towards dead Jews, another Tisha B’Av davening took place at Dianella Shule, and another personal experience was shared with the kehilla.

The Shules eldest and most respected congregant, honoured as Chatan Bereshit last Simchat Torah, shared his story.  At the age of 18 he was taken from Lithuania into forced labour during the Shoah.  During the war years he was taken to many camps, including Birkenau, and at one stage was returned to the vacated Warsaw ghetto to clean out debris.  His story included amazing stories of survival.  He was beaten, tattooed, watched many people die, and lived in extreme hunger.

During the course of the presentation, it was disclosed that he had held these experiences to himself for more than 60 years.  It was only relatively recently, about two years ago, that his first started to confront his internal trauma and share his story with his family.  Tonight, in the presence of his grandchildren, his story was told in public.  I was amazed to find, when speaking to his son afterwards, that aspects of the experience he shared tonight were still being heard by his family for the first time.

It is beyond comprehension to relate to the era that our friend described to us.  For many years I have known this man as one of the nicest and most polite people I have ever met, without having a clue of what he held inside.  His family are the most committed, decent, respectful Jewish people you could ever wish to meet, yet all of this lay concealed as a nightmare of the past.  It is perhaps a story that may never have been told, and certainly is reflective of the many Shoah survivors who took their experience and shame to the grave due to the trauma of being unable to revisit such pain and grief.  As we read the poetic words of the Kinnah by Rabbi Lionel Rosenfeld about the Martyrs of the Holocaust, the horrific imagery came to life through the sharing of this story.

Tisha B’Av is an intensely poignant occasion in the Jewish calendar. Coming just seven weeks before Rosh Hashana, the occasion emotionally blunts the Jewish psyche, and sharpens our sense of historical vulnerability.  It places us in the serious frame of mind that then transitions into the season of Teshuvah.

There is also something about the structure of Tisha B’Av that reinforces the notion that any expression of grief and mourning in Judaism must be channelled into memory, hope and opportunity.  As the day progresses the intensity of mourning starts to lift, and is supplemented by redemptive liturgy.  Indeed the Hebrew language has no word for tragedy, as the word itself implies a finite outcome and end point.  The Jewish experience is that strength emerges from hardship and that revival and continuity of Jewish tradition follows each existential challenge we encounter, both individually and collectively.

To obtain a narrative of what confronted the Jewish people, in particular Yochanan Ben Zakkai as the religious leader who made the heart wrenching decision to salvage Jewish continuity from the destruction of Jerusalem, I recommend reading Rabbi Brown’s historical novel Sicarii.   As I read this text over Shabbat, I wondered what the mindset of the besieged residents of Jerusalem was like within their own historic paradigm.  There were 70 years between the destruction of the first Temple and its rededication.  As the same timespan passed following the destruction of the second temple, perhaps there was also an expectation of regained sovereignty from the next generation?  Maybe they related to their desire for self-determination and religious freedom as right and expectation?  The Bar Kochba Rebellion 62 years after the destruction of second Temple may have reflected the sober reality that tyranny can ruin an epoch that can be revived but never recovered.

This is what the Shoah represents to our generation.  In the context of Tisha B’Av, the words of Rabbi David Walk assist to describe what this means:

“It’s not about the Temple.  It’s about feeling all alone in this vast universe, and God not available to give us dignity of purpose.  We’re abandoned and disgraced, because we had stopped turning to God for so long that when we turned back, God was gone.  So, over time our great spiritual guides have taught us that Tisha B’av isn’t about the Temple.  It’s about what it represented.“

More than ever the Jewish people are faced with generational change and societal change.  We have a strong nation, emerging as an economic powerhouse with requisite defensive capabilities.  We have incredible youth, a resurgence in Jewish learning, and great optimism.  Yet we have existential threats, confront terrorism, and observe laws and regulations being passed regarding shechitah and brit milah that effectively outlaw Judaism.

Then we have a night like tonight, where we can either watch the Olympics and contemplate how Israel, the only Jewish nation, cannot quite fit in, or we can participate in the commemorative rituals of Tisha B’Av.  By choosing the latter we can come to understand exactly what it means to be a stubborn people that refuse to be erased from history, and understand well what it is that our people still have to contribute towards human morality and development.