Reflections from the Torah, History and Traditions

What Can We Learn?


Night is falling, the room is dark except for a few very dim lights; we walk inside, remove our shoes, and find a place to sit on the floor. It is the beginning of a special 25 hour time of fasting, mourning and prayers. There is a hushed atmosphere of silence and awe filling the room as we begin to listen and join together in solidarity in chanting those familiar and heart-wrenching words from the book of Eichah, Lamentations…We soulfully begin by crying out the lament in the opening verses, “Eichah, eichah, how did this happen?”

Where are we? What is the date? What are we mourning and why?

It is the saddest day of the year on the Jewish calendar…it is the eve of the 9th of Av referred to as Tisha b’Av in Hebrew {באב תשעה}, where in Jewish circles, it is customary to gather with our community and pray. This is the scene in shuls and synagogues all over the world on this eventful evening, and as the case may be, this year, for many of us in our homes; for it marks the traditional observance of fasting and mourning not only for the destruction of the First Holy Temple in 586 BCE, but ironically, also the 2nd in 70 CE.

The Book of Lamentations, traditionally said to have been penned by the weeping prophet Jeremiah, speaks of the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem and the subsequent exile and dispersion of the Jewish people, and forms the central theme of the Tisha b’Av service.

The Jewish sages explain how much of this book is structured according to the Hebrew alphabet and suggest that it is almost as if the holy language itself is weeping along with us…its holy letters crying out, issuing their plaintive cry echoed through its pages. Through its pages and through the ages they cry out their lament…the lament that reaches us today…the lament for the destruction not only of the Holy Temple; but if we delve deeply, we discover the lament is for the destruction of so much more.  On the surface, it appears as if all hope is gone, but is it? Are there any “hidden sparks beneath the surface” to be found?

With tears flowing and hearts rent, we go back in time, we remember the story… what was once a people united, has now become divided into two groups, the Southern Kingdom of Judah in the south and the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the north.

In our mind’s eye, we go back to the year 586 BCE…a tragic time indeed! Jerusalem in the south has been plundered; its walls breached, its Holy temple destroyed. Many of its people have been slaughtered, and the remainder taken into captivity…a fate befallen the Northern Kingdom less than 200 years previously. Skipping forward to the year 70 CE, the Holy Temple, now rebuilt, was again plundered, destroyed and burned…this time by Titus as he marched in with his powerful Roman legions! We know that consequences always follow disobedience …but with the consequences of making disastrous choices, we have an opportunity to learn and if necessary, re-learn from our mistakes…over and over again until we get it right.

So here we sit, bowed down low on the floor, mourning and fasting and as we begin our lament with the all too familiar haunting words…we join with the Jewish people all over the world, as we cry out, Eichah, Eichah, how did this happen??? Eichah how is it that Jerusalem is sitting in solitude? The city that was filled with people has become like a widow…”(Lamentations 1:1)

The question becomes not just how, but why…why did this happen?

What Really Are We Mourning?

Is it the destruction of the actual building, the breaking down of the walls of the Holy Temple? Yes certainly, but it goes deeper…much deeper than that.  Looking back into the pages of history we see that it was the loss of the Divine Presence of HaShem in the hearts of His people…people that although they were warned repeatedly by Jeremiah to mend their ways and return to their  G-d, turned a deaf ear and continued to be bent on following their own stubborn ways of immorality, materialism, gluttony…total indifference towards HaShem and His Torah… even to the point of abandoning Him and following other gods… and not caring for one another…all of this leading to a society of moral decay filled with baseless hatred. Sound familiar?

Eichah/Akeh – What is the Connection?                                                                   

The Midrash tells us “There are three {prophets} who prophesied with the word ‘eicha,’” which as we have pointed out means ‘how’ in Hebrew…Moses in Deut. 1:12, Isaiah in Isa 1:21, and Jeremiah in Lamentations 1:1. “Eichah” is an unusual word. We ask ourselves, why did all three prophets choose to use this term…is there a connection? Perhaps there is. The connection appears to be in the attitude of the indifference, the unresponsiveness and the rebellion of the people…first in the time of Moses as he led the people through the wilderness, and later in the time of Isaiah and Jeremiah as they prophesied against the growing decadence of the people and repeatedly warned them of their coming destruction if they did not mend their ways.

Rabbi Soloveitchik points out that the Midrash identifies these three times the word eichah is used, yet asserts that there is actually a fourth time. He relates how Adam and Eve after they had eaten of the forbidden fruit try to hide from G-d instead of taking responsibility. HaShem then calls out to them and says “Ayeka, where are you?” (Gen. 3:9) We know that HaShem was not asking them this question for their own benefit for He knew very well where they were. The question was for their benefit.

Ayeka is spelled with the same Hebrew letters as eichah, (ayin yud, kof hey) which indicates that they are related. Rabbi Soloveitchik brings forth the concept that when we don’t answer the call of Ayeka, “Where are you,” and take personal responsibility for our actions and blame others instead, as both Adam and Eve did, we will ultimately find ourselves asking Eichah, how could it be, how could this be happening? I wonder how many times Adam and Eve asked themselves this question after having been driven from Gan Eden?

We look around at the world situation today, including the current state of tumultuous affairs in our own country and we ask the age old question,  Eichah…the question that has continually plagued mankind through the ages…how could all of these terrible things be happening?

We ask, but as Rabbi Soloveitchik asserts, we may never receive a definitive answer, unless we as individuals and as a corporate body, can answer the call of HaShem each to our own hearts…the call of Ayeka, “Where are you?” Are you taking responsibility for yourself or are we blaming others? Taking responsibility for ourselves should be the goal in the life of every Jew and every G-d fearing person on this planet…Ayeka is a wake-up call that has been echoed through the ages!

Tisha b’Av has come to us once again…it is a time of answering this wake-up call, a time of tearing down and demolishing walls deep within our own hearts and souls as well as those walls between one another, and between ourselves and our G-d and Creator.

It is a time of doing teshuvah…repenting, turning things around. It is a heart-wrenching time for it comes with soul searching, pain and humility, and being honest and truthful with ourselves and one another. It is a time of coming to grips with who we are, with what our purpose in life is and asking ourselves the hard questions… are we living up to our responsibility to HaShem, YHVH, our G-d and Creator in becoming all that He created us to be? Are we giving our allegiance to Him and Him alone, as He so expressly commanded in the first of the Ten Words, “Anochi, I am YHVH your G-d”… shall have no other gods besides me.”(Exodus 20:1)  Are we also living up to our responsibility to others and following His admonition “love your neighbor as yourself?” (Leviticus 19:18) These are sobering questions that only we can answer…each for ourselves.

It can be an intimate time if we allow it to be…a time of heart-rending tears and a time of mourning and fasting, a time of lament…HaShem is waiting for us to open our hearts to His love for us and our fellowman. We need to let Him in and give heed to His Voice, the Voice of YHVH, the One and Only G-d and Father of us all. What should be our focus? Listen to the poignant words of the prophet Joel as he cries out…

“Yet, even now says HaShem, turn to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments, and turn to HaShem our G-d for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and great in love, and repents of evil.” (Joel 2:12-13)

Tisha b’Av – A Bit of History…5 Calamities Plus More

Throughout the years of Jewish history, this three week period of time beginning on 17 Tammuz and leading up to this auspicious day of the 9th of Av have been very difficult and painful days for the Jewish people throughout the centuries. But Tisha b’Av seems to be the most auspicious day of all for it is a day that has been marked for calamity upon calamity.

According to the Mishnah (Taanit 4:6), there are five specific events that occurred on the ninth of Av that call for fasting and mourning.

The Twelve Spies sent by Moses to spy out the land of Canaan returned from their mission. Ten of the twelve brought back a discouraging report about the land causing the Children of Israel to cry out and doubt that they would ever enter the Promised Land. For this, they were punished by HaShem that their generation would not enter the land. The Midrash quotes Him as saying about this event, “You cried before me pointlessly, I will fix for you [this day as a day of] crying for the generations.”

  1. The First Temple as we have mentioned built by King Solomon was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, and the people of the Kingdom of Judah in the south were sent into Babylonian exile. According to the Bible, the First Temple’s destruction began on the 7th of Av (2 Kings 25:8) and continued until the 10th (Jeremiah 52:12). Jewish tradition has set the commemoration of this destruction on the 9th of Av.
  2. The Second Temple built by Ezra and Nehemiah was destroyed in the year 70 CE by the Romans and the Jewish people were subsequently dispersed and scattered to the four corners of the world.
  3. The Romans crushed the Bar Kokhba rebellion and destroyed the city of Betar, killing over 500,000 of its Jewish inhabitants on August 4, 135 CE.
  4. The commander of the Roman army Turnus Rufus plowed the site of the Temple in Jerusalem and the surrounding area following the crushing of the Bar Kokhba rebellion.

Other Calamities                                                                                                                             

Following is a list of other tragedies which have occurred over the centuries either on near the 9th of Av that have been added to the mourning associated with this auspicious day. This list is both compelling and chilling. (Reference: List from Wikipedia on Tisha B’Av)

  • The First Crusade officially commenced on August 15, 1096 (Av 24, 4856), killing 10,000 Jews in its first month and destroying Jewish communities in France and the Rhineland.
  • The Jews were expelled from England on July 18, 1290 (Av 9 5050).
  • The Jews were expelled from France on July 22, 1306 (Av 10 5066).
  • The Jews were expelled from Spain on July 31, 1492 (Av 7 5252).]
  • Germany entered World War I on August 1–2, 1914 (Av 9–10, 5674), which caused massive upheaval in European Jewry and whose aftermath led to the Holocaust.
  • On August 2, 1941 (Av 9, 5701), SS commander Heinrich Himmler formally received approval from the Nazi Party for “The Final Solution.” As a result, the Holocaust began during which almost one third of the world’s Jewish population perished.
  • On July 23, 1942 (Av 9, 5702), began the mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto, en route to Treblinka.
  • The AMIA bombing, of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, killed 85 and injured 300 on July 18, 1994 (10 Av, 5754).
  • The Israeli disengagement from Gaza began in the Gaza Strip, expelling 8000 Jews who lived in Gush Katif; August 15, 2005; 10 Av, 5765.

We grieve yes, but, we cannot allow ourselves to stay there, for despite the destruction of both Holy Temples and all of these great tragedies that have occurred during this time period we know with full assurance that all is not lost…there is a glimmer of hope that springs eternal…like “hidden sparks beneath the surface,” the hope rises out of the ashes of the destruction for the next generation and for the generations to come. And we can take our part in the generation of today!

So as we observe this awesome day of Tisha b’Av beginning after the Sabbath on July 17th this year, whether with a group, or alone in our homes and as we read from the pages of the mournful Book of Lamentations through our tears, may we follow the poignant advice from the late Rebbe Menachem Sneerson of blessed memory who poignantly suggested that we not just turn the pages, but “let the pages turn us.”

We look around us and we ask ourselves with the weeping prophet, Éichah, eichah, how did this happen…to our world, our country, our society…so much strife and baseless hatred? Have we in any way contributed? What if anything can we do to help make a change…to turn that baseless hatred into baseless love? Perhaps first we need to look deeply into the deep recesses of our hearts and ask ourselves that ancient compelling question that HaShem asked Adam and Eve in Gan Eden… “Ayecha, where are you?” It all comes down to the individual…each of us must ask and answer that question and determine to become the person we were created to be for we each have a spark of the Divine and with it a special mission to be accomplished. Are we utilizing the G-d given gifts given to us by our Creator?

If we choose to fast on this day, may we make it a meaningful fast…may we rend our hearts and not our garments as the Prophet Joel so strongly admonished and in so doing may we choose to take responsibility for our attitudes and our actions and do teshuvah, turning our hearts to HaShem and to Him alone in whatever measure we are called upon to do.

As we come to the closing passages of the book of Lamentations, May we pray fervently with all our hearts and heed the profound words of the dear weeping prophet, Restore us to you HaShem and we will be restored! Renew our days as of old!!!”(Lamentations 5:21) Baruch HaShem, what a promise!

Herein lie those “hidden sparks beneath the surface”…they are within each of us and all around us. We need only to open our eyes and turn to HaShem our G-d and Creator and His Torah with all our hearts, all our souls, all our “modecha ”or all our everything, as He commanded in the beloved Shema (Deut 6:4)…for all the answers are there!

May we look forward with great anticipation to the fulfillment of the promise in Zechariah 8:19, which enclosed in white spaces for special emphasis, promises that this fast of the 5th month along with the ones of the 4th, 7th and 10th months will be turned into times of “joy and gladness and cheerful feasts!”

And may we remember the words of Rebbe Nachman…”Tears open gates…music demolishes walls.”  So as we shed our tears let us look forward to the music!!! It is coming!!!

Stay tuned for the next article, From Mourning to Joy – Tisha b’Av to Tu b’Av



by Elisheva Tavor aka Betty Tabor Givin

Betty Tabor Givin (who is known by her Hebrew pen name as Elisheva Tavor) is a lifelong teacher. After having retired from her teaching career of several decades in the public and private school sector, she turned her full attention to religious education. She is an ordained teacher and long-time board member for United Israel World Union. Her popular teachings demonstrate the depth and beauty of her Jewish faith. Her articles have been featured in various publications and on the web. She is a regular contributor to Netiv Center for Torah Study and the United Israel Bulletin and is presently writing a book entitled, Hidden Sparks Beneath the Surface.