Connection with 2,000-year-old tragedy is essential to Judaism

BY RABBI ARI VERNON

This Sunday, Aug. 10, marks the 1,938th anniversary of one of the greatest tragedies ever to befall the Jewish people. The Jewish community worldwide will spend the day mourning, fasting, praying, reciting poems and reading accounts of the desolation that befell our ancestors long ago. It may come as a surprise that for many Jews, perhaps a majority, the day will pass much like any other Summer Sunday.

It can be difficult connecting to a 2,000-year- old national tragedy. Our national loss of sovereignty and self-governance left us precarious and vulnerable. Our peaceful living depended on the good graces of foreign rulers. At times we flourished, sometimes we survived despite others’ efforts and attacks. My life experience is very different.

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Our current homeland offers security, prosperity and religious freedom, and we have a secure State of Israel to which we can turn if, inconceivably, the climate here were to change dramatically. The destruction of the Temple, though definitely a tragedy, was the catalyst for developing the Judaism that we know and practice today. Though the first years following the destruction and national exile were certainly difficult, it seems, from my myopic perspective, to have worked out pretty well. How many other peoples can claim surviving 2,000 years without a national home and then boast of retuning to the cradle of its civilization and rebuilding?

What then do we make of Tisha B’av?

Our community is built on memory. Our Torah bids us Zachor — remember. Our holidays re-enact our shared national history, and this week marks the apex of the memorial cycle for national tragedies. We read in the haftorah Isaiah’s vision of the coming destruction. He uses the word Eicha — “how,” a word which appears sparingly in our scriptures, primarily in Lamentations, the scroll for Tisha B’av, known in Hebrew as Eicha. That word also appears in Parashat Devarim which is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’av.

Moses’ speech at the beginning of the last book of the Torah recounts our people’s desert wanderings and seems to hint at the seven times we communally sinned against God. Standing at the shores of the Jordan, we forget that this is not the same people Moses led out of slavery.

He is talking to their children who have no direct experience of redemption from Egypt, the revelation at Sinai, and possibly even the wanderings of the desert. He addresses them, however, as if they had been there, setting the tone of national memory that we preserve to this day.

As Tisha B’av approaches, every Jew should feel obligated to somehow mark this day. Whether by traditional practice or some other observance, we must challenge ourselves to connect with our national experience and memory even if we were not physically there. If we fail to remember, we risk not just repeating history, but losing touch with Judaism. When we are successful in creating that connection our tradition and rituals can be enriched with a new, eternal, spirit.

Ari Vernon of Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.