Today is the Ninth of Av, the date on the Hebrew calendar which commemorates the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Israel. The Second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE, 1938 years ago. It was destroyed by the Romans as the final blow to Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel at that time. The Romans understood that if the Temple was destroyed, Jewish morale would have received a mortal blow. The final attack was accompanied by thousands of Jews murdered and taken into slavery.
Just over 60 years later, after years of Roman oppression that included financial oppression and religious persecution, the Jews of Israel rose once again in rebellion against the Romans. Under the leadership of Bar Kochba, they managed to repel the Romans for three years until this rebellion was quashed as well. The destruction of the land and the persecution of the people in the wake of this rebellion was even more horrific than the Great Revolt of the first century. Most Jews were exiled to Rome and other areas. There was a desolateness and barrenness of the land that would last until the end of the 19th Century when Jews, once again, began to return to the land in numbers.
Each year, Jews mourn the destruction of the Temple, and fast and pray in remembrance of the horrors of the time. We read from the Book of Lamentations which tells us of the terrible times during the destruction of the First Temple. But we also read the stories and poetry that were written by Jews describing the destruction of the Second Temple. And, as G-d would have it, so many other events throughout the ages occurred on the same terrible date – most prominent of all was the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.
Much has been said about the bloody history of anti-Semitism throughout our nearly two millennia of exile. So much of the persecutions and the murders of Jews, the crusades, the Inquisition, the pogroms, were carried out in the name of Christianity and encouraged, if not initiated, by the Church. But anti-Semitism is not limited to Christian Europe. Nearly every country that had a sizable Jewish community persecuted their Jews to some extent. Our people were spat upon, our religion was reviled, and forced conversions and outright murder were not uncommon.
The nature of the collective memories that we recall on the 9th of Av is varied. We recall the punishments that G-d had warned He would mete out upon us were we to disobey Him:
“And I will scatter you among the nations and will draw out a sword after you, and your land shall be desolate and your cities waste…. you shall have no power to stand before your enemies. And you shall perish among the nations and the land of your enemies shall eat you up.” (Leviticus 26:32-38)
These verses give us context – we understand that what we have been going through was divinely appointed and divinely predicted. But that same awareness, enables us to look to the future, to hope for a different reality. For at the conclusion of the verses quoted above, are the positive promises of G-d: “Then will I remember my covenant with Jacob and also my covenant with Isaac and also my covenant with Abraham will I remember and I will remember the land. . . And yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not cast them away, nor will I abhor them, to destroy them utterly and to break my covenant with them, for I am the Lord their G-d.” (verses 42-44) And in another place, G-d promises, “If thy outcasts be at the utmost parts of heaven, from there will the Lord your G-d gather you and from there will He fetch you and the Lord your G-d will bring you into the Land which your fathers possessed and you shall possess it. . . And the Lord your G-d will put all these curses upon your enemies and on them who hate you, who persecuted you.” (Deuteronomy 30:4-7) Not only will G-d return us to our Land, but He will punish those nations who have persecuted us through the ages.
In the year 2014, 66 years after the establishment of the State of Israel, the 9th of Av has taken on a different perspective. We more readily identify with the verses quoted in Deuteronomy, that speak of a return after the exile, then we do with the description of the destruction of the land and the exile of our people. But, our tradition is clear – only when the Messiah comes will the 9th of Av become a day of happiness and joy.
The redemption that we are currently experiencing is miraculous indeed. But we are only in the middle of the process. It is far from completed. Although we are back in our land, our enemies are still powerful and eager to destroy us. The verses quoted above in Deuteronomy speak of a spiritual return as well – a mass return to G-d, to the study of His word and obedience to His commandments. This is beginning to happen, but it is far from completed. More and more Jews are asking about the meaning of the 9th of Av and are examining the progress of Jewish history as the truly miraculous story it is. And more and more Jews of faith and commitment are reaching out to their fellow secular Jews and teaching them, inspiring them, both through acts of charity and kindness and through teaching and prayer.
We are able to look forward once again, to a final redemption. We have hope and the end is in sight. But for as long as we have not completed the process, we must also read and mourn the Book of Lamentations. We must always remember the events of persecution and anti-Semitism that we suffered to give us the strength we need to fight our remaining enemies. But this memory is also a catalyst for repentance, for understanding and for return.