As I write these words it is late in the afternoon of Tisha b’Av תשעה באב, the 9th of the month of Av. A quick, worthwhile visit to Wikipedia will yield a description of several large-scale tragic events in Jewish history — events that unfolded on this day. Long story made short: this is our calendar’s saddest day; once you include the 20th century, Yom HaShoah comes to mind. Today, along with Yom Kippur is a major fast day. Unlike most weekday morning prayer services, no tefillin are worn, as tefillin are called a sign of glory — and the writer of the scroll of Lamentations poetically described the First Temple’s destruction (at the hands of the Babylonians some 2,600 years ago) as the glorious crown falling from our head. As for the scroll of Lamentations, five chapter-length poems (not too long; four chapters have 22 lines each, one chapter has 66 short lines) of sadness, some graphic images of starvation and catastrophe.
But I can’t leave the story incomplete. During last night’s service (via zoom, of course), I told a tale from the Talmud about four sages coming upon a few foxes who were roaming about the Second Temple’s ruins (at the hands of Rome in the year 70). Three of the sages were emotionally gutted by the sight and they broke into crying. The fourth, Rabbi Akiva, chuckled — and his colleagues wondered aloud how he could possibly find humor in such a sight. He spoke of two prophecies: the first had foretold the great destruction of the Temple, and the second vision described a rebuilt and Sovereign Jerusalem. Akiva said — now that I’ve seen the first prophecy come to pass, I know that the second one will also become reality. Akiva shared a seemingly impossible hope. But we know he was right. In the latter part of the twentieth — 1967 — that prophecy was fulfilled.
Back to Tisha b’Av for a moment: late in the afternoon, the mincha service includes tefillin and the haftarah (prophetic reading) has a hopeful tone of rebuilding. Our enduring tradition has built hope into the equation.
An observation from the moment in which we live — our country just lost a visionary giant, a congressman named John Lewis. Today I listened to a bit of the eulogizing that took place at this great man’s funeral. I felt comforted. I could actually breathe in a bit more deeply. How badly I needed to be lifted up! Yes, the speakers recounted struggle and pain. But they stirred the listeners with hope — which is not to be confused with cheap fairytales. Hope doesn’t ignore pain and sadness. Hope isn’t dishonest. Real hope envisions possibility, changes that can happen when we plant the seeds and tend the soil. Hearing these eulogies today was a blessing. It felt like an American civic equivalent to the Jewish vibe of what today is about.
Why do we still observe this day that recalls events shrouded in antiquity? Because we own all of our history and its burdens. And yet, we aren’t shackled to the past. Hope is part of our covenant — in my opinion, hope must be woven into the American vision as well. John Lewis taught us vital lessons that can guide us forward toward healing and rebuilding. And Tisha b’Av in all its layers implants these teachings as well. We grieve and we hope. We cry. We open our hearts to receive comfort. We rise up and plant new seeds. And we commit ourselves to nurture a better future.