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Rabbi Ari Ellis

Tisha B’Av 5770

Rabbi Ari Ellis - July 14, 2010

Jerusalem is my favorite place in the entire world. But on this coming Tuesday afternoon, on Tisha B’Av at Minchah we’ll say “Nachem.” We’ll add the following words to the blessing of Jerusalem in the afternoon Amidah:

Console, O Lord our God, the mourners of Zion and the mourners of Jerusalem, and the city that is in sorrow, laid waste, scorned and desolate; that grieves from the loss of its children, that is laid waste of its dwellings, robbed of its glory, desolate without inhabitants…

For anyone, like myself, who has been to Israel and to Jerusalem recently, you have to stop and ask yourself how we can continue to utter such a prayer in the year 2010? Even more so, every year on Tisha B’Av I wonder why it’s necessary to continue mourning with such intensity. Yes, Tisha B’Av does mark the day of the destruction of both of our Temples and exile from the Promised Land. But it’s been more than 60 years since we’ve returned to our homeland after nearly 2000 years of exile?  We have even returned to Jerusalem and re-established our Holy City as the capital of a free and independent State of Israel.

Yes, there have been dreadful acts of terror within the “City of Peace.” Yes, Jews cannot freely ascend or pray on the Temple Mount. No, things are not perfect. But nevertheless, the situation of the Jewish People in the Land of Israel is so much better than it ever has been during the past two thousand years. So why not celebrate on Tisha B’Av, or at least, tone down the mourning, at least a little bit?

To answer this question, my Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Shlomo Riskin suggests that we look at a Mishnah in Masechet Rosh Hashanah. The Mishnah there explains that in ancient times agents would be sent out to inform the far-out communities the exact day of Rosh Chodesh (the beginning of the month), so that the people would know when to celebrate the festivals and the Fast of Tisha B’Av.

The Mishnah explicitly tells us that in the time of the Second Temple they would also go out on the month of Iyar because of Pesach Sheni. The Rambam, in his commentary on this Mishnah deduces that even while the Second Temple stood, the Jewish People continued to mourn and fast on Tisha B’Av (Rosh HaShanah 18a). The Mishnah says that they would also go out for Pesach Sheni. But it doesn’t say that they wouldn’t go out for Tisha B’Av. Therefore the agents must have continued to go out for the month of Av.

Even after the Temple was rebuilt, we still fasted and mourned on Tisha B’Av. But why mourn when the reason for mourning have been removed? Why mourn when Jerusalem has been transformed into a thriving religious and cultural capital?

Rav Yosef Soloveitchik z”l explains that even after the Second Temple was rebuilt, the reading of Megillat Eicha (The Book of Lamentations) with its haunting question of Eicha “how could this happen” is still relevant. After all, many righteous and holy individuals, many innocent children, were destroyed by the Babylonians. Even the rebuilding of the Temple cannot remove the question as to why so many good and innocent people suffered. How could such a tragedy have happened in the first place?

Rav Soloveitchik explains that we mourned, even during the Second Temple period, and certainly today, during the “beginning of the sprouting of the redemption,” because we must learn the lessons of the destruction, because we must take three weeks out and sensitize our souls to the lessons of defeat, lest we fall prey to those very same temptations again.

Rav Yisrael Shurin z”l, who used to live in Efrat, each year would recite Kinot (the Tisha B’Av prayers) at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Chevron. The basis of his custom is a Midrash that explains that it was the ninth day of Av when the spies returned with their evil report of the Land of Israel. It was the day when the Jewish People wept as they accepted the advice of 10 of their 12 leaders not to go to the Land of Israel. And it was their abandonment of the Land of Israel that eventually led to our loss of sovereignty, the desolation of Jerusalem, and the destruction of the Temple. (Bamidbar 14:1, Rashi).

But Yehoshua and Calev managed to defy not only their 10 colleagues, but also the entire Jewish People. What gave them the courage to do so? Rav Riskin explains that Yehoshua, being the disciple of Moshe Rabbeinu, naturally shared his teacher’s connection to the Jewish People and wholeheartedly believed in his mission. But Calev received his strength and inspiration from visiting to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Chevron before embarking upon his mission to scout and report back about the land.

So, what exactly was so significant about his visit to Chevron? The Book of Bamidbar, which we just finished reading last week, ends with a list of the journeys of the Jewish People during the 40 years in the desert. However, the Torah introduces this list in a very strange way. “And Moshe transcribed their places of origin toward their places of destination in accordance with the divine word, and these are their places of destination toward their places of origin” (Bamidbar 33:2).

This verse seems to have gotten it backwards. You go on a trip in order to get from an origin and go to a destination. In fact, if you make a wrong turn and end up back where you started, you tend to get upset. So why does the Torah write, “… places of destination toward their places of origin?” Despite the commonly held wisdom that “You can’t go home again,” it seems that the Torah is teaching us that you must go home again, especially if that original home is the Land of Israel.

Rabbi Riskin explains that historically, the Jewish People began in Chevron. Upon leaving his homeland and coming to Eretz Yisrael, Avraham settled in Chevron and there received his mission, to teach righteousness and justice to the world (Bereshit 18:19). It was from Chevron that through Avraham all the families of the earth will be blessed (Bereshit 12:3).

The continuity of the Jewish People was confirmed in Jerusalem when Avraham took his son Yitzchak to Har HaMoriah (to the eventual site of the Temple Mount). There, again, God promises Avraham “…through your descendants shall be blessed all the nations of the earth” (Bereshit 22:18).

In terms of our history, Chevron and Yerushalayim may have come first – but they also must always remain our ultimate destinations. As Jews, we’ve wandered the four corners of the globe, even to places more remote than Winnipeg, but our minds, hearts and souls have always been linked to Chevron and Yerushalayim, our destiny and destination.  

And this is the message of Calev’s visit to Chevron, and the message of Tisha B'Av, even today in 2010. In order for the “beginning of the sprouting” of our redemption to turn into the real thing, we must return both to our Land, and to the values of the Torah. Only when as a nation we commit to make the necessary sacrifices to live our lives as Jews, can we begin to transform the world into a place dedicated to righteousness, justice, and peace. But until that dream becomes a reality, we still need to cry and mourn on Tisha B’Av. And may it be God’s will that by this time next year the prophecy of Zechariah will be fulfilled that these days of mourning will turn into days of joy and celebration.

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