When he was accused of incessantly harping on the past, Elie Wiesel responded: "Jews don't live in the past, but the past lives in us." The Jewish calendar does not just mark dates and events; it records the demeanor and tone of the Jewish people at any given time. We just entered the month of Av; the day to which it ineluctably leads is the fast of Tisha B'Av, the ninth of Av (this year, it falls on Aug. 14).
Tisha B'Av has taken on the dubious and ignominious distinction of marking the mother and father of Jewish calamities. The Talmud records that the First and Second Temples were both destroyed on Tisha B'Av, the former by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, and the latter by the Romans in 70 C.E.
History records that England exiled its Jewish population in 1290. Records from that period reveal that the date for expulsion corresponded to Tisha B' Av. In 1492, Spain also became Judenrein. Cecil Roth notes that Inquisition documents indicate that the deadline for Jews to leave the kingdom of Ferdinand and Isabella corresponded to Tisha B'Av. Somehow, it has become the paradigm for major Jewish trauma and tragedy.
But it is the origin of the Bible's first Tisha B'Av that is eerily familiar to the modern ear. Recall that when the Jewish people left Egypt, the next destination was supposed to be the Promised Land. Something happened that derailed its implementation.
Our talmudic sages locate the first Tisha B'Av in the story of the 12 so-called spies who went to explore Israel prior to entry. After 40 days of reconnaissance, they came back with a negative report. A heavenly decree was issued: one year of wandering in the desert for every day of excursion in the land.
It was this breakdown in relation to the land that caused the Jews to wander in the desert for 40 years. The incident is recalled by Moses at the beginning of the parshah, and it is for this reason that our tradition has mandated that Devarim be read on the Shabbat preceding Tisha B'Av.
But let's think for a moment about the etiology of the decree. Why was there such a harsh punishment? After all, what did they report that was so erroneous? They did see large inhabitants and fortified cities. And there was, from a geopolitical point of view, enough evidence to cause worry and negativity.
What they failed to focus on was the special and unique position of this land vis-à-vis the unfolding of their own history and destiny. From the point of view of realpolitik, they might have been right. But they viewed Israel as just another place in the Middle East – as merely a piece of real estate – and that was an egregious sin.
Letters and Meaning
Allow me to share a modern vignette that had an effect on the naming of the State of Israel.
There were three names proposed for the nascent state: Yehuda, Tzion and Yisrael. To paraphrase the words of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchck, divine providence took David Ben-Gurion's quill and guided him to name the fledgling state "Israel." In Hebrew, the word is spelled yud-shin-reish-aleph-lamed.
Pay attention to each letter; each one corresponds to one of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people as follows: Yitzchak-Ya'akov, Sara, Rivka-Rachel, Abraham and Leah.
We are the only people who are named after our collective parents. We are the only people whose very name indicates the irrevocable bond that comes with being from the same family.
Our tradition promises that Tisha B'Av will eventually be celebrated as a joyous holiday. Let us work toward and pray that a new holiday enter our modern calendar, a holiday celebrating the ultimate safety and security of the people Israel and the people of Israel.
Rabbi David Gutterman is executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.