July 15, 2013

The Paradox of Tisha B'av

Rabbi Haber

This morning, as she was getting ready to pray, my daughter asked me if we recite the Tachanun prayer today.   I was confused by her question: Tachanun is omitted on happy occasions, and today, the eve of Tisha B'av, is anything but.  Right now, we are in a period of intense mourning.

Of course, though, as she quickly pointed out, her question actually made a lot of sense.  Tomorrow, on Tisha B'av itself, there is no Tachanun.   So while the answer was that Tachanun should be recited today (in the morning, though not in the afternoon), her question was really very logical.

The omission of Tachanun on the saddest day of our calendar has always intrigued me.  It seems so out of place, especially in the Synagogue - on Tisha B'av morning the men pray without tallit and tefillin, the curtain is removed from the Ark and we sit on the floor.  One gets the feeling that we're saying the prayers because we are obligated to do so, but that God is so angry with us that we're not even sure if He's listening.   And in the midst of all of this, when we come to Tachanun we skip it, just as we do on the happiest of days.

The source of the custom (codified in Shulchan Aruch OC 559:4) is a verse in the book of Eicha (Lamentations) which refers to the day as a Moed - literally an "appointed time" but a term usually used to refer to holidays.  So since it's called a "holiday", we skip Tachanun.  I've always assumed, though, that there must be much more to this than simply an inference based on word in a Biblical verse.

Our Sages also tell us (Rosh HaShana 18b) that in the future Messianic Era, Tisha B'av will be a day of rejoicing and celebration.  The custom of refraining from Tachanun, therefore, seems to be a precursor, in the midst of our crying and mourning, of that future celebration.   It's as if we can, by listening very carefully, hear the faintest hint of the future echoing back into the present.

It is worth pondering the significance of this concept.  It is one thing to say that in the future we will no longer need to fast.   But a celebration?  Perhaps, though, the key to understanding this lies in another Rabbinic adage: whoever mourns for Jerusalem is worthy to rejoice in her celebration (Taanit 30b).  Jerusalem was destroyed due to our sins, and when we mourn for her, long for her, and consequently work to correct our ways, we bring about the reversal of the destruction and exile.   And so, quite fittingly, the day which marks the destruction will one day mark the Redemption.  And although that day has not yet arrived, we anticipate its arrival even in the midst of the darkest moments - so no Tachanun on Tisha B'av.

In recent years, I've noticed Tisha B'av observances becoming much more popular. Communities around the globe organize Kinot services and learning programs focusing on the limited parts of Torah we are allowed to study on Tisha B'av (I've been privileged to participate in such programs on three different continents over the past few years).  The power of the Internet has been harnessed for this as well - if you want to, you can spend the entire day watching quality lectures on video and live webcasts to help bring meaning to the day.  (Once I'm mentioning it, I'll put in a plug for my neighbor Izzy Broker who produced a video with his own money, featuring a number of prominent rabbis talking about the mitzvah of living in Israel and connected to Tisha B'av.   He made one last year as well.)

Here in Israel, the secular community participates as well - across the country there are readings of Eicha and discussion group programs under the interesting title "Tonight We Don't Learn Torah".  And of course the hub of it all is at the Kotel - the plaza is packed with tens of thousands of people both at night and in the afternoon.

All of this together, quite paradoxically, has begun to give Tisha B'av a festive feel.  I've occasionally even heard people absent-mindedly refer to it as "Yom Tov" by mistake.   And to me, this is very significant.   The way I see it, as we approach the Redemption, the echoes of that future celebration are getting louder.

At the same time, though, we are far from ready to actually celebrate.   The Temple Mount remains in ruins, and our enemies are all too ready at any moment to make sure we don't forget that the Redemption is not yet here.  In case we needed reminders, this week's news highlighted for us the ongoing threat from Iran and her proxies closer to home, antisemitism around the world, and the painful fact that we still suffer from the "baseless hatred" the rabbis tell us was the cause of the Destruction.

So we're not celebrating yet.  Today we are preparing to sit down on the floor as we have for thousands of years and read the book of Eicha in the traditional mournful tune.  As we do, though, let's also try to listen to the sounds and see the signs of the approaching Redemption.  Let's allow those realizations to increase the pain we feel at all that is not right, and resolve ourselves to each do our part to fix that which is broken.

May this be the the last time we fast on Tisha B'av.

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