On Tishah b’Av we mourn what we were — and hope

Nearly 2,000 years after the destruction of the last Temple we focus on what the national purpose of the Jewish people is meant to be


It has been 1,953 years since the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. The Sephardim have the custom to announce the number of years out loud to the congregation on the night of Tishah b’Av to emphasise just how long it has been. I have often heard people say that it is too long a time to mourn for anything. How can there still be relevance to a commemoration of a loss that is almost two millennia old?

This question highlights an aspect of Jewishness that is often overlooked due to the more local attention we tend to give to modern politics, culture, education, religion and community that occupies the Jewish mind. An argument can be made, however, that we should make time to recognise and ponder the longevity of our very existence as a people on this earth. We should focus on ‘how long it has been’; that we have been here for thousands of years as a specific people and we have done so over the last two-thousand homeless, with our hands tied behind our backs as we were burned by the fires of the world. Tishah b'Av is a day in the Jewish calendar in which we do this very thing. It is done not by celebration, but by mourning.

We mourn the loss of our national sovereignty and while we have miraculously regained it in a significant way with the establishment of the State of Israel, we on the Ninth of Av recognise as we must that it is not without so many external pressures, condemnations, hatreds, and existential threats. Tishah b'Av is the one festival on which we pay attention to just how long we have been a people yearning, hoping and keening for national peace, wholeness, and freedom.

I have often said that the greatest miracle our people has ever seen is the fact that we are present as a people to remember a 1,953-year-old loss. I am further known to say that when a Jew visits the British Museum every room she enters there displays the artefacts and remains of ancient nations who were essentially footnotes in her own history. I do not tire of saying it for I believe it is the greatest testament to our covenant with God and the special nature of our nation. I draw from those facts more faith and hope than from any other testament.

From this current reality, from this unique place in Jewish history, we look back upon tides of time within which we were always present, and we recognise that perhaps the most un-Jewish of things is archaeology. Un-Jewish in the sense that it uncovers the archaic; that which once was but is no more, was alive and is now dead, had relevant presence and now lies in the dust. None of this is so to the Jew and his story. His story carries on and is yet unfinished, his ancestors are not ancient but simply those who came before—they are ever present and alive in the living people. His history is a dynamic and unfolding story. His artefacts, be they buried or in contemporary use, are alive, currently meaningful, and relevant now.

And yet, when we think of our story, we are aware that we still live — Am Yisrael chai — but that we have been stripped of so much. We are self-aware, but we have yet to be fully self-actualised. What we mourn is not the destruction of the Temple and the exile from our land, but the once whole, sovereign glory that was the fully secure, sure, and thriving nation of Israel. Yes, in the scheme of the eons we have been on this earth, that circumstance was but the blink of an eye. But it is nonetheless something that the collective heart of the people still believes it will one day see. It is a flame kept burning, fanned and cultivated by — in no small way — the Ninth of Av, a day in which we stop what we are doing in contemporary life, strip away our basic comforts and distractions, and sit solemnly on the floor to call back into the forefront of our national mind that which we are meant to be and in doing so, that which we have not yet become. The very fact that we still do it is testament that it will one day be a reality.

This may sound to some as far flung and flights of fancy. But as the prophet Isaiah reminds us “My thoughts are not your thoughts and your ways are not My ways, says God.” (Is. 55:8) And if we were to look back at the many events of the last seventy odd years in which we have begun to return home and gather our national strength as a sovereign people again, reawakening our national name, ‘Israel’, after having worn the subordinate stand in ‘Jews’ for so long, we would be right to notice that so much of it were His ways and not ours. So much of it happened as we never imagined it would, even as all the odds were against us.

Tishah b’Av is a time in which we mourn what we once were and with the hope that we know deep in our souls, we know we will be once again.

Rabbi Dweck is the senior rabbi of the S&P Sephardi Community

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