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Tisha b’Av: take heart!

Rabbi Roderick Young considers how we can take heart from the apparently gloomy liturgy of Tisha b’Av

This is the time of the year when the ritual calendar, which covers the cycle and rhythm of our religious and spiritual lives, seems most at odds with the secular calendar that regulates our day to day living.  It’s summer outside (we hope!).  It’s the silly season in the newspapers.  Those who can will take a holiday.  These are the weeks to relax, to enjoy the countryside, and to re-charge the batteries before autumn comes all too soon, with its promise of work to be done and winter weather on the horizon.

And it is at this precise moment that the Jewish calendar is asking of us something quite different.  During the evening of July 31st, at the start of the first day of the Hebrew month of Av, we enter the bleakest and darkest part of the Jewish calendar. We begin a period of nine days of mourning when traditionally Jews avoid all pleasure. And these sad days culminate on the 9th of Av, Tisha b’Av, the day that the Romans began the destruction of the Temple in 70CE and so set in motion two thousand years of exile.

However, the majority of Jews no longer observe this time of mourning. Many simply don’t know about it, many dropped it over 100 years ago, believing it to be inappropriate to a modern age, and still others stopped observing this period after 1948 and the rebirth of Israel.  But a good number of Jews do still observe the final day of mourning, the Fast of Tisha b’Av, which this year falls on the evening of Monday 8th of August and the day of Tuesday 9th August.

Tisha b’Av is an awesome, solemn Holiday.  Traditionally, Eicha, the Book of Lamentations, is read – becauseEicha describes the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. The custom is to sit on the floor and to read it by candle, or by flash light, or with the lights deeply dimmed.
If it all sounds just too gloomy, take heart! The liturgy of Tisha b’Av also promises us that we will never be abandoned by God. Indeed there is a tradition that the Messiah will be born on Tisha b’Av, so that out of the horror of a truly dark day comes the symbol of redemption. And there is a custom to sweep out one’s house on the afternoon of Tisha b’Av, so that it should look nice if the Messiah suddenly turns up. For those of us who find any excuse to delay housework, Tuesday 9th August would be a good day to get out the feather duster.

Observing nine days of mourning is not something that most of us will want to bring back into our lives. But Tisha b’Av is a holiday we should not forget.  The power of Tisha b’Av is that it both asks us to look back to a period of terror in our history and to look forward to a time of redemption. It teaches us never to forget the pain of past events, but it also contains the promise of re-growth and the hope for a better future.

In rabbinic literature the month of Av is known as Menachem Av, “Av the comforter.”  May the summer be fun and relaxing and may the month of Av bring true comfort to all of us.

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