Take the challenge of Tisha B’Av

Rabbi Micah Buck-Yael is the coordinator of community chaplaincy at Jewish Family & Children’s Service and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah for the Jewish Light. 


This coming week brings one of the most difficult days of the Jewish year. From Saturday night through Sunday, we will observe Tisha B’av, the day that commemorates many of the tragedies of Jewish history.

In particular, we commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples of Jerusalem in 586 BCE and 70 CE, respectively. The liturgy for the day is often brutal, demanding that we recite in great detail the horrors of war and destruction, and that we try to understand the profound loss that our communal and religious life suffered at those times. It is not possible to overstate the ways in which this catastrophe shaped Jewish life.

On the Shabbat immediately preceding Tisha B’Av, we begin reading the fifth and final book of the Torah: the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy). This book is different from the four books that precede it in almost every way. For one thing, it is personal. The book of Devarim is framed as Moses’ farewell address (or series of addresses) to the people of Israel.

Moses delivers it in the first person, describing what we experienced as a people since leaving Egypt. He inserts his frustrations, hopes and worries into the narrative. One can hear tremendous urgency in his words; he knows that he will no longer be able to guide and teach the nation, and he is unsure whether we have learned what God has been trying to teach us.

Aside from the change in tone, the book of Devarim contains two major theological developments.


The first is the complete centralization of ritual life in the Temple in Jerusalem. Deuteronomy 12:5 states, “Rather, seek only the place where God will cause God’s Name to dwell, and go there and bring there your offerings and sacrifices.”

This and many similar verses were understood to mean that Judaism, relationship with God’s Presence, could only happen if the Temple stood. In this framework, the catastrophe of Tisha B’Av is magnified. For our ancestors, what was lost was not only a homeland and a center of worship, but the very possibility of reaching out to God. It seemed that in the midst of war and destruction, God was utterly absent.

The second major development in Devarim is a culture of personal study. For all the emphasis on the life of the Temple, it is terms like “learn,” “teach,” “recite” and “impress upon your heart” that mark the book of Devarim.

We are commanded to “tell your children” the events that make us who we are, to “recite these words” and to “place these words upon our hearts.” The word “Devarim” itself means “words,” and points to words — to reflection and study — as a central component of religious life. It is this development that laid the foundation for surviving the catastrophe.

There is another word closely related to the word “Devarim.” That word is “Devir.” The Devir was the ancient name for the Holy of Holies, the space in the heart of the Temple where God’s Presence could be found. The Devir was what was lost in the destruction of the Temple. The Devarim were not: Words are portable, indestructible and shareable. The act of study is the ultimate Jewish act of faith. It is in our study halls and schools that meanings are made and remade, where our understandings are challenged and refined, and where we can allow ourselves to be changed by our sacred history.

As a spiritual practice, real study is more time-intensive, more demanding and more personal than any system of sacrifice could be. It demands our full attention, a lot of chutzpah and some vulnerability. When we come before our sacred texts, we have to be willing to know that they will change us, that they will challenge us and that they will have something to say about the world in which we are trying to make meaning.

We have to come before them with the confidence that we can master these texts, that we have something valuable to add to their interpretation and that we are part of the project of meaning-making.

Try to take this challenge. After the mourning of Tisha B’Av is over, find a new class, a new teacher or a new text and get real with it. Whether you have years of Jewish study under your belt or are completely new to it, please believe that your study, your intellect, your presence are part of what will keep Judaism growing and living.


Rabbi Micah Buck-Yael is coordinator of community chaplaincy at Jewish Family & Children’s Service and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical  Association.