Monday, 11 May 2020

Tisha b'Av and lighting the sky

"Even, after all this time, the Sun never says to the Earth 'you owe me'. Look at what happens with a love like that. It lights the whole sky."

I have a fondness for quotations. I have a particular fondness for this one. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's the imagery of a lit sky, powered only by love that speaks to the romantic in me. Maybe it's the idea of a special kind of love, love that gives without question, without any expectations, without any demands, without any requests. Without wanting anything back in return. Keep that thought in mind.

Jews, currently, are counting the days, literally, between Pesach and Shavuot. Why? Well, like with most things, because the Torah tells us to. And so we count. Helpfully, I have an essay due on Shavuot, so the nightly count is also an unwelcome reminder of that, but that's fine. This period of counting is known as the Omer, a period which, quite unrelated to the original commandment of counting, has become a time of mourning. And, because I can't sleep at the time of writing, it made me think of another period of time that Jews are supposed to be in mourning, the so-called three weeks when we mourn the breaching of Jerusalem's walls and the destruction of the Temple, culminating in Tisha b'Av, the ninth of Av, a fast day commemorating a number of tragedies and, specifically, the destruction of both Temples. The link (periods of Jewish mourning), albeit somewhat tenuous, is forgivable seeing as we've been in lockdown for six weeks and the mind is permitted, I am sure, to wander.

We are taught the reason the Temples were destroyed, the reason such a tragedy befell the Jewish people is שִׂנְאַת חִנָּם - baseless hatred. The Gemara at Yoma 9b is clear. After discussing three reasons the First Temple was destroyed, the Gemara asks:

"מפני מה חרב מפני שהיתה בו שנאת חנם"

"...why was the Second Temple destroyed? It was destroyed due to the fact that there was wanton hatred during that period." (Sefaria translates it here as 'wanton hatred', but that is the same as baseless hatred for our purposes).

The Gemara goes on to ask:

"ובמקדש ראשון לא הוה ביה שנאת חנם"

"The Gemara asks: And in the First Temple era was there really no baseless hatred?" (here, for some reason, Sefaria does translate it as 'baseless hatred')

The conclusion is that even those who were apparently close had a hatred for each other. So far, so simple. The Jewish people were hateful and both Temples were destroyed due to this grave sin. What's the point of this blog, already based on a tenuous connection and starting with a bizarre quotation?

Well, Rabbis and scholars have long debated what exactly baseless hatred is and provided a number of messages and thoughts on Tisha B'Av. I would like to share two. One that is a fairly common interpretation and one that I think is my own, though the more learnèd amongst my readership are free to correct me.

The months of the Jewish calendar, originally, were merely numbered - with the month of Nissan being the first month, representing the importance of the exodus from Egypt. Post-Babylonian exile, they were given names. Many have provided links between those names and the month itself and what happens in those months. For example, Shevat is believed to an ancient Akkadian word that is related to the word lashing and refers to 'lashings' of rain. This is, plausibly, a connection to the rain that would typically fall in the month of Shevat, a month also known in the Jewish calendar as the so-called New Year of the Trees. Rain, famously, quite important for trees. Tammuz, the month where the three weeks of mourning the destruction of the Temples begins is, either ironically or meaningfully, the name of an idol. This is possibly an allusion to and a reminder of the fact one of the reasons given in Yoma 9b for the destruction of the First Temple was idol worship. Rashi has a simpler idea, Tammuz is related to the Aramaic word for heat, Tammuz is also a summer month, normally hot. Nissan, aptly known as the month of miracles, is plausibly so-named for the numerous miracles that occurred, including the Exodus from Egypt. You get the picture. So what of Av?

Av means Father. Many sources explain the connection as a reminder that even when we, the Jewish people, sin, Hashem, our G_D, remains there, like a parent. G_D may punish us for our sins, but nonetheless, G_D remains our parent. The name of the month, therefore, serves as a reminder that no matter what we do, no matter how badly we sin and no matter how severe a punishment we deserve for that sin (and the destruction of the Temple is a high punishment, indeed), G_D remains, always, there. Just like any parent.

I have, however, a different interpretation. One that relates back to the quotation I am particularly fond of above. We are taught, as I have said, that the Temples were destroyed due to our baseless hatred. Perhaps, then, Av is not a reminder that Hashem is like a Father or Mother in that Hashem is always there. Instead, it is a reminder of what we need to do, as Jews, to bring the Temple back. Parental love is, often and normally, unconditional. You might even call it 'baseless love' if you were looking for a meaningful connection to tie this whole post together. The name of the month then is a constant and unfailing reminder to love without question, without any expectations, without any demands, without any requests. Without wanting anything back in return. Just like a parent. Perhaps that is what we need to do, as Jews, as people, to ensure the rebuilding of the Temple. It was destroyed because of baseless hatred. The path, I believe, to our redemption and its rebuilding must be paved with baseless love, the love that never, even after all this time, would say 'you owe me'. A love that lights the whole sky.

יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶֽיךָ, ה' אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ וֵֽאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵֽינוּ, שֶׁתִּבְנֶה בֵּית הַמִּקְדָשׁ בִּמְהֵרָה בְיָמֵֽינוּ

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