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Tishah b'Av: the hope born of destruction

The bleak fasts attests to an enduring faith in prophetic idealism

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The historian Salo Baron coined the phrase the “lachrymose conception” of Jewish history, which he saw as an over-emphasis on catastrophe and suffering.

The approaching fast of Tishah b’Av, which falls on Wednesday night, is a lachrymose concentrate. Not only does it commemorate the destruction of the two Temples, characterised by Jeremiah’s Lamentations with its opening image of the widowed city.

But the kinot, the dirges, that are recited afterwards go on to recall later calamities — the rampages of the Crusades, the burning of the Talmud in Paris and the martyrdom at the York Massacre in 1190 when “silenced are the inhabitants of the isles”.

Yet it is this most mournful day in the traditional Jewish calendar that most explicitly affirms the link between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. The loss of Jerusalem, with the pillaged Temple and many of its people swept into exile, is seared into Jewish consciousness.

Many of the kinot are traditionally ascribed to the prolific paytan (religious poet) Kallir, who some believe lived as early as the seventh century CE and possibly in the Land of Israel. Rich in allusion to biblical and rabbinic sources, his poetry can often seem oblique. But writing centuries after the events, there is no obscuring the depth of feeling as he depicts the Temple walls “breached, melting and sent crashing down the hill”; or, memorably, God hovering like “a lonely bird” over the ruin of His resting-place in Jerusalem.

A few centuries later, in medieval Spain, the refrain of Abraham Ibn Ezra’s lament goes, “How much longer shall there be weeping in Zion and mourning in Jerusalem?”

But it was another of the Spanish greats, Judah Halevi, who penned the best-known of the medieval laments, the Ode to Zion, where he imagines wandering around the places where God’s glory was revealed to the prophets. “O who will make me wings that I could wend my way afar? I will make my own broken heart find its way amidst your broken ruins.”

Halevi was unusual in setting off on a mission at the end of his life to visit the Holy Land. But it is humbling to reflect that, whereas we live in a time when it is just a few hours’ flight away, for most Jews who recited it over the last millennium, it remained an unattainable dream.

Yet the bleak liturgy has its reservoir of hope. One anonymous kinah is constructed around a double refrain, which contrasts the good things that happened “when I left Egypt” with the bitter events “when I left Jerusalem” (kinah 33 in Rabbi Abraham Rosenfeld’s edition of the Ashkenazi liturgy); but its last line switches tense to look forward to a time of rejoicing “when I return to Jerusalem”.

As Rabbi Naftali Brawer notes in A Brief Guide to Judaism, there is a tradition that Tishah b’Av is the day on which the Messiah will be born. “Within the destruction there exists the seeds of redemption,” he writes. Hence the paradoxical omission of the daily prayers of supplication, which “are otherwise only omitted on festivals or happy occasions”.

As the sombre mood begins to lift towards the latter stages of the fast, the messianic promise is openly expressed in the haftarah for the minchah service in the Askenazi rite. Not only does it culminate in Isaiah’s vision of the ingathering of the exiles and the Temple restored, but it speaks too of foreigners joining themselves to the Lord “for My House shall be called a House of Prayer for all peoples”.

It is arguable how many Jews today actually would welcome the return of the Temple in its traditional form, complete with sacrifices, supposing that were a practical possibility. Had the Temple Mount stood empty when Israel gained control of it in 1967 during the Six-Day War, with no Al-Aqsa Mosque or Dome of the Rock, how great would the pressure have been to rebuild it?

But if the Third Temple remains an elusive aspiration, nevertheless the ideals articulated by the prophets as part of their messianic vision can still be a shared source of inspiration. For the prophets, the return to Jerusalem is more than a physical homecoming, it has a spiritual dimension too.

Isaiah’s image of a “House of Prayer for all peoples” can be interpreted in different ways. A narrow, triumphalist belief that the superior truth of Judaism will be recognised by others. Or a more inclusive hope that humanity will unite in pursuit of common ideals. “I am the Lord who practises kindness, justice and righteousness on the earth,” says Jeremiah in the morning haftarah.

Some have queried how much relevance Tishah b’Av has in the contemporary Jewish world. But as long as the prophetic vision for Jerusalem remains so far off, then the fast still has its place.

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