Judaism is a faith tradition that celebrates. We mark the change of seasons with our holidays and festivals. We commemorate historical events with lights and significant foods. We mark the life cycle events of birth, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and marriage.
Standing in stark contrast to these joyous events is what might be called our "Day of Infamy." Tisha B'av, or the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, was just observed this past Wednesday night and Thursday. The day marks the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonian Empire in 586 B.C.E. and the Second Temple by the Romans in the year 70 C.E. It is truly the saddest day on our calendar, marked by fasting and the reading of the Book of Lamentations.
Over time, Tisha B'Av has come to be a Jewish day of mourning, not only for these events, but also for later tragedies which occurred on or near the ninth of Av.
We were expelled from England on July 18, 1290 (Av 9, 5050).
We were expelled from France on July 22, 1306 (Av 10, 5066).
We were expelled from Spain on July 31, 1492 (Av 7, 5252).
On July 23, 1942 (Av 9, 5702), began the mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto.
Yet, with all of this tragedy and destruction, I believe that there is a hidden reason for optimism that might serve as a lesson for today. After the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans and the dispersion of the Jewish people away from our homeland, it might be argued that this should have been the end of Judaism.
But it was not. Over the years that ensued, the rabbinic leaders gathered to essentially "reinvent" Jewish practice. They knew that there must be a "re-envisioning" of Jewish observance if Judaism were to survive. Where there was no longer a central place to make offerings, there was now prayer. Where there was no longer a central place in our sovereign land to worship, there were now "synagogues" and practices observed at home, making each residence a place of remembrance of ancient practice or "mikdash m'at." Contained within our daily prayers were words of longing for a return to a land of our own.
And herein lies the lesson for today. The covid-19 pandemic has been a worldwide catastrophe. Our religious institutions have been particularly affected because of our inability to congregate. Yet, among our many faith traditions and denominations, we have found new ways to overcome the challenges of our separation. It is my fervent hope that we find new and creative ways to re-energize and re-envision our gatherings. May this current calamity end soon, and may we continue to find meaning in meeting the trials of these difficult days.
"Cause us to return to You, O God, and let us Return: renew our days as of old!" (Lamentations 5:21)
Samuel Radwine is the cantor for Congregation Etz Chaim in Bentonville and cantor emeritus of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.