Tisha B’Av begins tonight at sundown.
Often, when I think about Jewish observance, it is in terms of process theology, or the notion of Jews changing God, or even God changing God’s self. Other times, I consider Jewish practice in terms of Jews changing the world.
This is different. When viewed from my usual head space, Tisha B’Av makes no sense. It’s not just a fast day, it’s a fast day with the outward severity of Yom Kippur: no food, no drinking of water, no bathing, no hand cream, no leather shoes, and no sex. On Yom Kippur, these things make sense. We are forgoing earthly pleasures to transcend the body and join with Hashem in a moment of metaphysical union and ecstatic joy. On Tisha B’Av, we are transcending physical pleasures to more fully be miserable. On Yom Kippur, we are surrounded by whiteness and light and beauty. On Tisha B’Av, we sit on the floor in the dark.
When we think of spirituality, we think about being uplifted, and finding comfort. When we think about religion, we think about developing a relationship with whatever divinity we believe in. Yet there is pointedly nothing uplifting about Tisha B’Av. The focus is not communion with deity. As if to underline this, the sages passed a law forbidding Torah study on Tisha B’Av, with the exception of certain incredibly depressing sections of the Tenakh, and studying the laws of fasting. They forbade it because it was too spiritually enjoyable.
In any other religion, there would be an explanation about how we deserved to suffer because we are unworthy, or doing penance or some nonsense. On Tisha B’Av, we read the Book of Job, a story about a righteous man who suffered because fuck you, that’s why. So, that’s not it.
In fact, with the exception of Yom Kippur, penance is never the reason for fasting in Judaism. I might even argue the case that it isn’t really the purpose on Yom Kippur, either. Another time, perhaps.
Let’s take a look at some other fast days.
The Fast of Gedaliah – Remember that time that religious zealots murdered their own governor because the Torah says that people from the tribe of Levi shouldn’t be political leaders? Well, it’s a fast day, so now, I guess you do.
Asarah B’Tevet – Commemorates when Jerusalem was conquered by Nebuchadnezzar.
Fast of Esther – Esther fasted to gain spiritual strength in order to save the Jewish people. We fast to remember the dark time she faced, and in remembrance of her fast.
Fast of the First Born – The first born fast to remember the plague of the first born that was visited on the Egyptians during the Exodus narrative.
Notice a theme here? In each of these cases, the fast exists to remind us of something that is inappropriate to celebrate, but that shouldn’t be forgotten. As I am sitting here, struggling to come to spiritual terms with my up-coming 25 hour fast, the main thing I ask myself, and will continue to ask myself throughout the fast, is why am I doing this to myself?
Not only that, but the people around me who aren’t observant, or who aren’t Jewish will see me sitting on the floor, abstaining even from such comforts as water, and will ask me the exact same question. “Why are you doing that?”
More than me asking myself, other people asking me is the key. I’m not a stupid person, I’m not a mindless person. If I am doing something, there is a damn good reason. I am challenged to answer with something compelling. It starts with a history lesson, and ends with philosophy, and neither the recounting of the history nor the deep thinking that comes alongside it would happen without the observance. The fast provokes the question.
So, what is Tisha B’Av supposed to remind us of?
Actually, though, it’s more than that. It commemorates the “sin of the spies,” when those sent to look upon the land of Israel came back and thereupon decided that it would be far better to wander in the desert and complain to Moses about how there was no food than to go and conquer the promised land.
It commemorates the date that the Romans crushed the Bar Kokhba revolt, the Israeli bid for independence from the Roman Empire. It likewise commemorates the date that the Romans plowed the site of the Temple and the surrounding area.
It commemorates the Holocaust, too. Indeed, it commemorates, in a greater sense, absolutely every bad thing that has ever happened to the Jewish people. It isn’t just a day of mourning, it is THE day of mourning.
It is the day of the archetypal bad thing. It is the day that, more than any other day, makes us question why bad things can happen to good people, and why bad things especially seem to happen to Jews.
Tisha B’Av isn’t just a day for us to ask why we are fasting, it is a day for us to ponder a larger question about our history. If we are the chosen people, the favorites of the creator, why did our temples get smashed, and why was there a Roman Occupation, a Diaspora, or a Holocaust?
The question of why we do what we do isn’t limited for going for 25 hours without water, in this case. It is a broader question. It is, effectively, why bother being Jewish, if being Jewish entails such inherent hardship and darkness?
It gets bigger, and even more essential. Tisha B’Av begs the ultimate question: Why would God do this? Why would God create a place full of darkness and harm?
Let me ask you: If you were Creator, what would you do?
Here is your paint. Make me a world.
No, that’s wrong. I hate it. Look at all the dark colors you’ve put into it. Even the lights aren’t purely white. That’s ok that you screwed it up, God, I’m sure you’ll fix the painting in the Final Redemption.
We can make it look more like that, you know, when you are ready to make a world such as I actually want to live in. You’ll take out those rich russet tones and the deep forest green, and all other manner of darkness.
Truth is, though, that our definition of “ultimate bad” is set by the worst thing we’ve experienced. People who experience very little in the way of hardship worry about less severe things than people who have suffered much. People who have experienced little in the way of luxury want for more modest things, while the wealthy always seem to find more indulgences to spend their money on.
The depth of our experience is measured from the depths of our misery to the height of our pleasure. If we remove the darkness, or the light, or mute them, it renders a shallow experience, devoid of intensity.
“If you can’t take a little bloody nose, maybe you oughtta go back home and crawl under your bed. It’s not safe out here. It’s wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross; but it’s not for the timid.” — Q (Star Trek: The Next Generation “Q Who?”)
We, the Jews, worship Creator. Our religion is designed to mirror the universe in full. Our observances are not all ones of happy times and joy, because the universe isn’t all light and gladness. We worship the Creator. That means turning a blind eye to nothing.
On Tisha B’Av, we recognize the darkness in the universe and in our lives. We don’t celebrate it. We don’t confuse it with goodness. We give the depths of hell and misery which are a natural part of creation a context in which to exist and a proper, human response: sorrow.
But the truth is, we aren’t just recognizing the darkness in the universe, generally, and expressing sorrow for what God did wrong, nor are we mourning a past event, a long-ago sacking of an ancient temple whose appearance no living person can recall. We are mourning because the darkness that exists in the universe also exists in us. We are mourning not to punish ourselves, but rather, so that we don’t turn a blind eye to what is evil inside of us.
More than being just a building, the Temple was where people gathered to honor their deity together. The Temple may have been the body, but community was its soul.
We need Tisha B’Av because Jews still hate Jews for no reason. We need it because of snark and gossip, and people who destroy reputations of others to snag just a little extra power for their own viewpoint.
I need Tisha B’Av because I’d rather stay home than go to synagogue.
We need Tisha B’Av because two Jews alone on a desert island need three synagogues: one for the first Jew, one for the second Jew, and one that neither of them would set foot in.
We need it to give a home and a context and a proper response to that aspect of human nature that favors having petty ideological disagreements over doing what is right for the community.
We need Tisha B’Av because, in a very real sense, the Temple is still burning.
We need Tisha B’Av because we tell ourselves that the problem is too big for us to solve. We need it because we’d rather paint the situation as being insurmountably terrible, rather than admit that we need to make ourselves better in order to solve it. I need it because sometimes, on other days of the year, I’d rather sit around suffering than create a solution for myself. We need Tisha B’Av because the sin of the spies is still on-going.
As I fast, and kvetch, and over the next 25 hours, ask myself, hundreds of times, why, I will remember the darkness, and I will curse it. I will remember that cursing the darkness, rather than being at peace with it, is what gives my life depth and meaning. I will remember, too that I should summon up joy and excitement during times of light and gladness, when they come, rather than being angry that they don’t last forever.
I’ll be grouchy and snarky and sit there hating the world for 25 hours, and then I’ll endeavor not to do that for the rest of the year.
To all of you Jews reading: I wish you a miserable, awful, sad, snarky, difficult fast.
Just kidding. Tzom Klal everyone.