This weekend, traditional Jewish communities around the world recognize Tisha b’Av. It is a lesser-known day in our Jewish calendar that commemorates the destruction of both Temples in 586 BCE and 70 CE, respectively. It is also a day on which our sages believe all terrible things have befallen the Jewish people. It is, quite simply, the saddest, darkest day of our entire year.
During my first year of rabbinical school in Jerusalem, on erev Tisha b’Av I made my way to the Western Wall with some classmates. As we walked from our shabby limestone apartments in the Rehavia neighborhood down the hill, toward the walls of the Old City, we found ourselves swallowed up by a massive throng of people – hundreds of them, many dressed in dark wool. They were crying – no, not crying, wailing. And as we drew closer and closer to the Kotel, their cries grew louder and louder. When we finally reached the Western Wall we saw thousands of Jews acting as if their closest relative had just passed away. The words they chanted were from Eicha, or “Lamentations,” a collection of laments and prose that are some of the saddest, darkest, most haunting words you’ve ever heard. It was, for us modern Jews, a totally surreal sight.
It is not coincidental that we begin the book of Deuteronomy right around Tisha b’Av. Whereas this lesser-known Jewish holiday is all about remembering – and mourning – the past, Deuteronomy is a retelling of all that has befallen the people Israel from the beginning of the Torah onward. There is sanctity and beauty in this holy act of remembering: only through telling stories of the past are we able to look to our future. Mourning the destruction of the Temple – and all horrific things that have happened to our people – leads us to rejoice and celebrate the new year just over one month later at Rosh Hashanah. Looking back to the challenges and victories of Moses’ leadership in Deuteronomy, we understand the gravity of what we are about to do as we open with Joshua at the start of N’vi’im.
Together, Tisha b’Av and Deuteronomy remind us of the power of knowing our past. As we begin this new book of Torah, may it add depth and color to an understanding of ourselves and our people.
Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen