One of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned about the holiday of Tisha B’Av came in Jerusalem during the summer of 1988. At a vigil sponsored by Shalom Achshav, one speaker (I wish I can remember who) compared Tisha B’Av to the Jewish High Holidays. During the latter, Jewish tradition requires Jews to do a Cheshbon Nefesh Prati (“personal moral accounting”); on Tisha B’Av, however, the Jewish people are commanded to undergo a Cheshbon Nefesh Leumi (“national/collective moral accounting”).
I’ve been thinking about that simple insight a great deal this year. Too often, I think, Tisha B’Av feels like a masochistic exercise in collective self pity – a numbing recitation of a long litany of woe that has befallen the Jewish people over the centuries. To a certain a extent this is certainly justified: more than any other holiday, Tisha B’Av puts the spiritual themes of grief and mourning firmly at the center. But I do believe we do the holiday – and ourselves – a great disservice if we only treat it exclusively as an expression of our communal Jewish pain and angst.
In the midst of the often overwhelming grief of this holiday, it is too easy to forget that Tisha B’Av also asks us to examine the collective responsibility we bear for the misfortunes that befall us. After all, the Rabbis hastened to remind us that the Jewish exile was mipnei chata’einu (“due to our sins”) and the destruction of the Second Temple was a result of the Jewish People’s sinat chinam (“baseless hatred”). In other words, the central question on Tisha B’Av is not “why do these horrible things always happen to us?” but rather, “how have we contributed to our misfortunes?”
Too many of us seem to feel that since we Jews have experienced more than our share of collective tragedy, that we are somehow given a free walk on this question. That to even suggest such a thing is tantamount to blaming the victim. Others choose to turn away from this question because of its troubling theological implications, rejecting outright the notion of a God who would punish in such a fashion.
Still, I believe that we ignore this question at our peril. At the end of the day, Tisha B’Av asks us to reject the notion that the Jewish People are only a victimized people; the passive recipients of injustices meted out against us from time immemorial. If anything, Tisha B’Av reminds us that we bear a collective moral responsibility – that what we do matters in the world, and that our actions have had very real consequences for us as a people. And so on Tisha B’Av we are asked to make a communal moral inventory so that we might better understand the part we play – wittingly or not – in our own history.
In this regard, there is no getting around the fact that there are important political implications to this holiday. Indeed, the questions we might ask about our collective responsibility are more than merely academic. Tisha B’Av demands this collective accounting: how have we contributed to the ongoing crises in our own country and around the world? How have we – as Jews, as Americans, as world citizens – sown the seeds of our own tragedy?
If we are truly able to find honest answers to questions such as these, I can’t help but believe that our collective mourning will eventually give way to a more hopeful future for us all.