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The fast of Av

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2006-07-28

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

The first nine days of the month of Av ( began last Wednesday) are a period of deep mourning for Jews. They lead up to the most important post biblical fast, the Ninth of Av ( Tisha B’Av) which commemorates the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE by the Babylonians and then the Second Temple in 70 CE by the Romans.

Tisha B’Av is the only post biblical fast that starts the evening before and runs right through the following day just like the Day of Atonement. In addition to the fast ( this year the 2/3rd August ) we read the Book of Lamentations, attributed to Jeremiah, a very moving and compelling little chronicle of despair and pain. A work of poetic beauty unlike any other record of suffering, personal and national, I know of.  It is often read in synagogues, sitting on the floor and by candlelight.

What I find unique about the way our tradition has dealt with Tisha B’Av is that  it lays the blame for what happens to us fully and squarely at our own doorstep. We don’t blame the Babylonians for unfair military tactics. We don’t accuse the Romans of imposing their power and wealth upon the rest of the world. We don’t produce conspiracy theories; we don’t blame everyone else except ourselves. We look at our errors and we mourn our own mistakes and shortcomings and then get on with our lives.

The Talmud (Taanit 29b) says ‘Once Av begins one should avoid if at all possible any conflict with idol worshippers because during this period of the year, the constellations are not on our side and the outcome will be bad for us.’ Here’s a very good example of how our tradition contains conflicting elements, those who believe in the power of the stars and those who do not. Let’s hope the latter are right!

So here we are this year caught up in an awful struggle once again. Just when we think withdrawal from Arab territory and from Gaza and a safety barrier will bring us security that we can rely on force, our vulnerability is once again exposed. Missiles do not recognize barriers or borders. Of course I ask myself what the point of Israel bombing Gaza and Lebanon is if there can never be fail safe guarantees. I was asked this week to put my name to a big advertisement deploring the bombing and killing on both sides and I chose not to. Why?

The battle in Lebanon once again highlights the attitude of most of the western world. ‘We can accept Jews as victims, but not as fighters. We will tolerate Jews in Islam or Europe just so long as they know their place and don’t try to push themselves too much. Maybe the Arabs shouldn’t be firing rockets at settlements and cities but come on, they do have cause for complaint and why can’t the Jews be good Christians and turn the other cheek? Why do these Jews get so aggressive?’ 

People thought that if Israel withdrew from Gaza the Palestinians would concentrate on developing their own territory and stop firing rockets at civilian targets in Israel. When Israel withdrew from Lebanon people foolishly believed the Lebanese would concentrate on building up the south peacefully instead of creating an armed fortress directed at Israel. Nearly everyone (except for Iran, Syria and the Prime Minister of Lebanon) agreed Hezbollah was wrong, including most Sunni Arab states in attacking Israel. But no one has been willing to deal with Hezbollah. Of course they all want an end to conflict and as usual appeasement is the currency. They are terrified but impotent. So Israel fights back because it has no alternative.

Just tell me what else is Israel supposed to do? You might argue that the Palestinians only want a State and not the destruction of Israel. You might argue and some might believe you. But these Bollah guys with their Iranian paymasters make no pretence of the fact that they want Israel destroyed. So what are we to do? Withdraw without any reassurance? Volunteer to disband the State? Convert to Islam and be killed by a Shia or as a Shia? Who likes to be hated by everyone? No one.  Isn’t this why so many Jews have assimilated, to avoid the burden of our history and faith?

We can either to lie down and disappear or fight. And I did not sign the advert, not because I didn’t agree with the sentiments, but because I do not want to do anything at this moment that might be seen in any way as providing psychological support to those who think Israel should not respond. But how has she responded? Doesn’t it make sense to cut off means of supply and communication, command and storage wherever they have been immorally placed?  Even so Israel has tried its best to minimize casualties though in war you lose to friendly fire as well. So many of our best and bravest have been lost precisely because Israel has tried so hard to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties. You wouldn’t know it to hear most of the worlds press.

Tisha B’Av tells us of two things, that being victims is no answer. We have only survived because we came back and would not lie down. But equally, fighting is not always the answer either. It reminds us that terrible mistakes are made, politically and militarily and if we make the wrong decisions we will be punished terribly. Errors must be recognized and put right. But the will to live has seen us through worse crises. If we believe there is something worthwhile in being Jewish, something worth preserving then I believe we need a State at this juncture in human affairs and it must defend itself.

There is something divine in all human beings and when necessity forces us to behave aggressively and sometimes inhumanly that is when we must return to our spiritual roots to rectify the imbalance. We need to use this year’s Tisha B’Av to ask ourselves whether we want to fight to keep our religion, to keep our State and whether we are behaving in such a way as to deserve it and whether we can find other and better ways of achieving our goals..or not, giver up and lose it all.

Negativity is no solution and it is a betrayal of young men and women who give their lives for State of Jews that has risen from the ashes of Babylon, Rome, Christian Europe and the Holocaust. This is why we read three haphtarot from the prophets before Tisha B’Av of recrimination and condemnation (puranuta). But afterwards we have seven haphtarot of comfort (nechamata).

I like my religion. It may make life tough on you one moment, but it does try to compensate and make you feel better afterwards!

Visit Rabbi Jeremy Rosen on the web: www.JeremyRosen.com