This Saturday night and Sunday, Jews all over the world will sit on the ground, wear no shoes made of leather (a traditional sign of luxury) and read the book of Lamentations in a keening melody. This ritual is a mourning for a building destroyed more than 2,000 years ago. It all seems a bit much.
Tisha B’av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, is the day on the calendar when the Temple in Jerusalem was finally destroyed, first by the Babylonians in the 6th century BCE, and then by the Romans in the first century CE. The Western Wall, part of the external wall of the second Temple, is a remnant of what was. An indication of its centrality in Jewish history is its other name, the wailing wall: it is so called because when Christians controlled the city in the Middle Ages, Jews were allowed at the site once a year, during Tisha B’av, when they would pass by the Temple and cry for their lost home. The Christians, observing, took this as a lesson in punishment for the Jewish people rejecting one of their own, the presumptive Messiah, Jesus.
But why maintain this ritual today? There is wisdom in remembering for it is the unremembered past, as psychiatrists teach us, that controls us. What we remember we can integrate and understand. The destruction of the Temple inaugurated the wandering of the Jews. Many other tragedies have attached themselves to this date; it was on the ninth of AV that Ferdinand and Isabella issued the proclamation exiling the Jews from Spain in 1492. Various catastrophic events in the Middle Ages and through the Holocaust occurred on this day. But it was the initial destruction that propelled the subsequent history, glorious and tragic, of a homeless people. Now that the situation has been historically reversed, we recall the moment that sent us on our long journey.
This day of sadness also affirms that we live in an unredeemed world. As a people convinced the Messiah has not come, we recognize that the human drama is a story without an ending. People have a natural tendency to urge the end. As Frank Kermode pointed out some time ago in his book The Sense of an Ending, we say that clocks go tick-tock. But they don’t. They go tick-tick. We supply the tock. Our craving for conclusions is deep within us. We can’t stand to listen to music without the final resolving chord; we don’t like movies that refuse to wrap up neatly. Voldemort must die, Dorothy must wake up in her Kansas bed, and Odysseus must return home. We check how many pages are left in the book until we get to the ending. Tock.
But we live in a radically unfinished world. For Jews history concludes in the Messianic time when the Temple is Divinely restored. Whether we take that literally or metaphorically, one day of the year we mourn for all that is unfinished, the pains of history and of our world, represented by a catastrophe that changed so much.
When the Temple was destroyed, many people were killed—priests, scholars, sages, Israelites of every description. The land was laid waste, and a nation was exiled, at first for a century and the second time for millennia. Cicero, the Roman orator who lived a century before his people burned the Temple, taught that not to remember your past is to remain forever a child. The Jewish people have lived too long to remain children. We will sit and weep for what was and hope for what might be. We will continue in a turbulent world, to cherish the prayer that one day their tears will be wiped away. And to hope that there will be peace on God’s holy mountain, for knowledge of the Lord will fill the earth as the waters fill the sea. (Is. 11:9).