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Tisha B’Av: A Letter From Rabbi Jacobson

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B”H. New York.

Just concluded the mincha afternoon service and took off my Tefillin, which we don on Tisha B’Av in the afternoon (not in the morning as we do the rest of the year) to commemorate the Temple’s tragic destruction on this day.

I enter the synagogue and see old and young praying on this sad day, as Jews have been doing for the last 20 centuries. I wonder what it looked like at the Wall this year, after yet another senseless attack, following a devastating year in Israel, and for that matter also abroad.

How strange. Jerusalem is under siege again, just as it was 1940+ years ago and before that, over 2500 years ago (when the First Temple was destroyed), and many times before and after. The Crusaders. The Moslems. Everyone seems to want a piece of this mystical city. I should correct that: Not “under siege again,” but perhaps always been under siege; its just that now we are painfully aware of it.

Why is Jerusalem under siege and always been under siege? Because Jerusalem (and even more: the Temple Mount) is a place of power – potency that everyone wants to feed off. Jerusalem in Hebrew (Yerusholayim) combines two words: Yira (awe), Sholom (peace). Awesome harmony. Jerusalem is the place where Abraham offered Isaac at the altar and where Jacob fell asleep and has his ladder dream. Jerusalem is the place from where Adam and Eve were created. That is why all humans – children and carriers of the genes of Adam and Eve – gravitate back to that holiest of places. Jerusalem is the center of the universe, and everyone feels it consciously or unconsciously.

We pray toward the East, toward Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. We stand in New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Moscow, London, Bangok, Sydney – wherever we are on the globe (and even on the moon) – we always face Jerusalem. 5000 years ago, 1940 years ago and today.

All these thoughts come rushing through me as I see the old 94 year-old man putting away his Tallit, as a 12 year-old boy near him is opening up his Siddur (prayer book) to begin the service, all against the backdrop of the Aron Kodesh (Holy Ark) situated silently – but prominently – on the Eastern wall of the shul. History flashes right before my eyes. I ask the older man, “How many years have you been fasting on Tisha B’Av?”… It turns out that he has been honoring the Temple’s destruction for 85 years (when he began fasting a complete day), and he did so during diametrically opposed years – eight decades that span the harsh years under Czarist Russia, followed by an even harsher Communist regime, the years of the Holocaust, and finally the years in free America.

And now it’s 2016. The world is again in turmoil. America is reeling. Israel is bleeding. Every sensitive person feels a profound tentativeness and uncertainty.

85 years. Here stands a man who has been crying on Tisha B’Av for 85 years – a century that has given birth both to the greatest technology and to the greatest destruction.

But even these 85 years pale in comparison to the 1940+ years of our collective Tisha B’Av grieving.

There is something about pain, about loneliness that is extremely powerful when you see it remembered and commemorated for millennia. We usually like to remember our joys and forget our losses. Yet, here we are recreating ruin and destruction, and we are… strengthened, not weakened.

Something so powerful about this recognition of hurt and vulnerability. It’s almost like by facing it we become more powerful. In cliché terminology: That which does not destroy me makes me stronger. When all you experience is beauty and comfort, you can never know how you will face pain and loss. However, when you have been destroyed and still remain standing, then you know you can endure anything and everything.

We also just recited (in the Mincha prayer) the special Tisha B’Av entreaty “Nacheim – Be consoled.” The Arizal (whose yahrzeit was four days ago) explains the reason, because Moshiach is born on Tisha B’Av in the afternoon (as our sages teach).

“Is that,” I am thinking “how the people endured generation after generation, despite all the trials and difficulties?” Was this the belief, the promise, they held on to – the firm belief that Redemption is born in the throes of ruin?  “Next Year in Jerusalem!” our ancestors have declared for centuries and centuries. “May Jerusalem be rebuilt” is our daily prayer for thousands of years. As trying as it may be – and as difficult as it ever was – this dream, this aspiration has kept us alive, despite all odds.

We always know that Moshiach is born as the flames rise and consume our structures. And with every birth the light intensifies, to the point that it will never be extinguished.

From Tisha B’Av we enter right into Shabbat Nachamu – “Comfort, comfort my people” – and then into the full moon of the 15th of Menachem Av, when we celebrate the greatest of holidays (“There were no holidays as great as the 15th of Av…” the Mishne tells us), the ascent that follows the deep descent of the 9th of Av.

And what about Jerusalem? What is the holy city of Jerusalem thinking? Does she still sit alone, as the prophet Jeremiah saw her 2424 years ago (as he writes in the opening verse of the book of Eicha)?

I’ll let you know next week when, please G-d, I will write to you from the holy city.

Next week (not year) in Jerusalem. Hopefully all of us will be there.

With eternal hope,

Simon Jacobson

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