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The Meaning of Tisha B’av

This week, Jews of all stripes around the world will observe TIsha B’av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, a day of fasting and mourning over the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. But what are they mourning?

Let us stress that this mourning is not merely a custom or a matter of extra piety. The Gemara says, “Whoever mourns over Jerusalem will merit to see its happiness when rebuilt, and whoever does not mourn will not see its happiness” (Taanis 30b). Whoever understands what we are missing and patiently awaits its restoration will not be disappointed, but whoever thinks we are lacking nothing now – will get nothing.

Many today struggle to define the term Zionism. Some say it means secularism, but there are religious Zionists. Some say it means those who love Eretz Yisroel and make it their home, but there are hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Jews who are so opposed to Zionism that they refuse to serve in the army, yet love Eretz Yisroel, speak of it constantly in their prayers and often make it their home as well. So let’s drop this confusing term and instead talk about exile and redemption.

G-d decreed that the Jewish people should be in exile. We say in our prayers, “Because of our sins we were exiled from our land.” Exile means not having Jewish sovereignty, as the Gemara says, “There is no difference between the current era and the messianic era except for our subjugation to the nations” (Shabbos 63a). A Jew living in Eretz Yisroel under Turkish or British rule was considered to be in exile, and by the same token a Jew living outside of Eretz Yisroel is not considered to be in exile if he relies on a Jewish state as a last resort in time of need.

Today there are those Jews who accept exile and those who don’t. Those who don’t might be religious, they might sit on the floor and mourn on Tisha B’av, but they don’t really understand what they are mourning about.

They think they are smarter than Hashem and don’t have to follow His plan. They think it was an accident that we went into exile, so another accident could bring us back. “Geopolitical conditions,” they say, “have made it possible for Jews to resettle in their ancient homeland, Eretz Yisroel once again and fulfill the dream of centuries.” They don’t realize that Hashem scattered us around the world for our own safety, as the Gemara says (Pesachim 87b). They don’t realize that the Torah speaks of the curses that will befall the Jewish people in Eretz Yisroel, but not if they go into exile (Ramban on Devarim 28:42).

Some may protest, “Exile is not merely a matter of sovereignty. We are mourning the loss of our Beis Hamikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. We are mourning the spiritual greatness that the Jewish people once possessed, compared to today, when many Jews live under secular influence.”

But those who build Eretz Yisroel on their own will not stop at sovereignty. They say that if we enact legislation to make the state more religious, then all will change. They want to build a theocracy without permission from G-d.

Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, chief rabbi of Jerusalem in the 1920s and 30s, explained it well with the parable of a wise prince who became seriously ill. His father, the king, sent for the best doctors and brought them to his hospital bedside, and the king himself stood there together with him. Could one imagine that such a wise boy would ask his father and his doctors to free him from the hospital and send him home while still sick? And even if he did make such a foolish request, they would not grant it, despite their mercy and love for him. Leaving while not completely recovered would put his life in danger. Rabbi Sonnenfeld continued:

We, the Jewish people, are in exile because of our sins. The exile is the Jewish people’s hospital. It is unthinkable that we should take for ourselves power in our land before our healing process is complete. Hashem protects us and shields us while doling out to us our medicine in exact amounts. We are certain that when the time comes and our healing from our sins is complete, Hashem will not delay even one second, and He Himself will redeem us. Not so if we would hurry to leave the hospital – then a mortal danger, a perpetual danger would hover over us, G-d forbid. And even when we pray for our redemption, we ask only that our healing process be complete quickly – not that we should return to the King’s palace while still sick, G-d forbid. (Mara D’ara Yisroel v. 1 p. 145)

Yes, we are mourning for our spiritual losses, but our spiritual healing is dependent on the physical exile. To mourn over the illness while attempting to escape from the hospital early is to deny this principle.

Now let’s talk about the name Zion, which this anti-exile movement has adopted for itself. Someone once asked the Brisker Rav, “Where is it written in the Gemara or Shulchan Aruch that the idea of Zionism is wrong?” “Gemara? Shulchan Aruch?” he replied. “Bring me a siddur (prayer book) and I will show you where it is written.” He showed the person the words of Shmoneh Esrei, “And may our eyes see when You return to Zion…” (Uvdos Vehanhagos Leveis Brisk v. 4, p. 195)

Every Jew in every past century, reciting the prayers three times a day, knew well that it was Hashem who would return His presence to Zion. Along came Zionism, took this holy name and turned the whole concept on its head. It will not be Hashem, it will not be moshiach, it will be we ourselves who bring the redemption. “If I will not help myself, who will help me?” was their slogan.

On Tisha B’av, Jews in the synagogue recite eight kinos (lamentations) that begin with the word Zion. The most famous of them begins, “Zion, will you not seek out the welfare of your captives?” It was written by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi in the 12th century. “Ah,” they say, “Rabbi Yehuda Halevi was a Zionist! See, he wrote beautiful poems of longing for Zion, and even made aliyah himself at the end of his life.” But the following passage from his famous work, the Kuzari, shows us what he truly believed.

The Kuzari describes a dialogue between the king of the Khazars and a rabbi. The rabbi states that the Jewish people is closer to G-d today, in their humble state of exile, than if they were a mighty nation. The king asks: "That might have been so if your humility were voluntary; but it is involuntary, and if you only had the power you would kill." The rabbi replies:

You have touched our weak spot, O King of the Khazars. If the majority of us had accepted our humble status for the sake of G-d and His Torah, G-d would not have forced us to bear it for such a long period. But only the smallest portion of our people thinks thus… If we bore our exile and degradation for G-d's sake, as we should, we would be outstanding even by the standards of the generation of the messianic era, for which we hope, and we would accelerate the day of our long-awaited deliverance. (Kuzari Maamar 1, 113-115)

Rabbi Yehuda Halevi considered it a great merit to accept exile for G-d's sake; his longing was not to break out of exile by force, only to experience the long-awaited redemption and, in the meantime, to see the beloved Holy Land in its state of desolation. The Zionists, on the other hand, unfortunately confirm the accusation of the king of the Khazars that “if you only had the power, you would kill.”

The Zion we long for is a spiritual place, a place where all the ancient commandments will be restored, the Jewish people will serve Hashem and be a light to the nations – not a place where Jews will live by the sword, every day clashing with enemies and provoking the condemnation of the world.

For centuries, the remnant of the Temple, the Western Wall, known to Jews as the Kosel, has symbolized our mourning for what we have lost. Ironically, the Zionists have used both Tisha B’av and the Kosel as nationalist symbols. In the 1920s, Jabotinsky’s militant Beitar youth group started an annual custom to march to the Kosel on Tisha B’av night. In 1929, despite warnings from the British authorities of the tension growing between Zionists and Arabs over the holy site, several hundred youths of the Beitar group marched to the Wall, holding half-mast flags. When the march reached the Wall the youths grew silent and swore: "Hear O Israel, the Wall is our Wall, the Wall is one!" Then they marched around the Old City walls. Returning to the city, they went up to the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva, met with Rav Kook and told him about the march and the oath they had taken to defend the Wall till their last drop of blood. Rav Kook strongly approved of what they had done. (Malachim Kivnei Adam, p. 184)

The rest is history: in the riots that broke out in reaction to the Zionist claim to the Wall, the Arabs killed 133 Jews in Jerusalem and Hebron.

Today as well, the Kosel symbolizes Zionist sovereignty over the most holy of sites. And now, those Orthodox Jews who think that “the Wall is our Wall” are locked in struggle with Reform groups who wish to hold egalitarian prayer services at the Kosel.

But the Kosel is not ours to decide who should pray there. In the olden days the Kosel was not used for public prayer services of any kind. It was a holy place where Jews came to pray privately. It was the Zionists – who are not known for praying at all - who sought to turn it into a public synagogue during the 1920’s.

In 1928, when the Zionist Vaad Leumi (National Council) came to Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, who had lived in the Holy Land for some 60 years, to get support for their contention that the Wall had always had the status of a synagogue, Rabbi Sonnenfeld replied as follows: "October 14, 1928...As regards the question: Was it the practice to bring an ark and Torah scrolls to the Wailing Wall? - I know that never has there been such a practice; and likewise today, I am totally dissatisfied with the practice."

The last and most famous lamentation of all, Eli Tzion, also focuses on the word Zion: “Mourn, Zion, and her cities, like a woman in labor, and like a virgin dressed in sackcloth mourning the husband of her youth.” Note the choice of the comparison “like a woman in labor”: pain that leads to joy, to the birth of a child. The poet’s intent is clear: those who understand exile, who do not attempt to escape G-d’s decree, will be those who will one day witness the true rebirth of the Jewish people in the Holy Land, when moshiach comes.