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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Tisha B’Av, Tragedy and a Personal God

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on July 22, 1998)
Topics: 3 Week/9 Days/Tisha B'Av, God, Faith, Religiosity & Prayer, Machshava/Jewish Thought, Moadim/Holidays

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On the Ninth of Av we mourn over the destruction of the Temple and over other great tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people. It is a day marked by great sadness and sorrow, a day on which we are all mourners. The rituals unique to this day – not shaving, not bathing in hot water, not donning tfillin, not learning Torah, not greeting one another – all manifest our state as mourners. There is one practice, however, that appears incomprehensible in this context – we do not say tachanun, the penitential prayer. Why, of all days of the year, do we omit tachanun on Tisha B’Av, when such ommision is usually reserved for Shabbos and holidays? The rabbis explain this practice, saying that Tisha B’Av is call “mo’ed,” an “appointed time” in the verse: “Call for Me (God) a ‘mo’ed’, an appointed time, to shatter my young men” (Lamentations). This term, “mo’ed” is the same term applied to Shabbos and the holidays, and hence Tisha B’Av is a day like them, a day which we consider, at least in one respect, to be like a holiday.

This explanation, far from explaining, really sharpens the question. How is it that we should consider Tisha B’Av to be like a holiday just because it is called a “mo’ed”? The context is altogether different! Unlike the holidays, it is not an appointed time for rejoicing; it is an appointed time for destruction! What is the meaning of this expression of joy – omitting tachanun – amidst all the expressions of mourning?

I believe that the answer to this question comes from an understanding of the nature of tragedy, and of how we as Jews relate to tragedy. This year, I have been giving a number of classes that deal with philosophical topics, among them, the question of Divine justice: why do bad things happen to good people? This question presents itself to almost all of us, particularly when we have personally experienced tragedy. The answer that we arrive at depends to no small degree on our world view: is it rationalistic or religious? Or, to put it in other words, to what degree do we see God involved in the world?

A rationalistic view tends to see God as very rarely involved in world events. God stands back and allows the world to run its natural course, and He will only interfere when absolutely necessary. This type of approach certainly presents an easy answer to the question of Divine justice: things are indeed unfair; God does not mete out justice in this world. The problem with this approach is that while solving a philosophical problem, it gives birth to a host of religious problems. For to accept a world without God’s involvement not only contradicts many verses in the Torah, but would also lead to an empty, meaningless religious life. Why would we pray three times a day, if not that we believed that God answers – or at least listens to – our prayers? What type of a life would we be living if we did not see – or at least attempt to see – God within our world? Isn’t that part of our religious obligation: to have a relationship with God, to see God in our world?

The answer is of course, yes, this is our obligation, this is Judaism’s unique teaching, that there is a God who is not only Creator of Heaven and Earth, but who is also the Lord your God who took you out of the Land of Egypt. This is why we struggle so much with the question of divine justice, because we firmly believe that God is involved in this world, and thus we look for an explanation in tragedy, in evil.

When we look for explanations, for answers, they will not always be forthcoming. They may elude us for many years, or for our entire life. But whether we find the answers or not, our view of the world and of ourselves will be profoundly different than if we had never asked. For far from living in a meaningless world, a world of random and often cruel events, we will approach the world as a purposeful place, a place where things happen for a reason. And we will understand that our existence is likewise meaningful. We will understand that God brings about events because he cares for us, and that God does relate to us on a personal level.

As I said, we may never find the answers to our questions, but that should not change our faith in the nature of reality. We are not always privileged to know why things happen, even when they happen for a reason. The rabbis traditionally explain tragedy, as the Torah does, as a punishment: either a form of justice, or a spur for us to introspect and repent. These explanations are often appropriate and helpful. However, when it comes to national tragedy, and to tragedies of immense scope, they are sometimes hard to accept. Was all of this really necessary as a punishment, did we truly deserve this much? This, of course, is the cry of Lamentations: how could such a tragedy have occurred? How does it all make sense? And, just as obviously, this is the cry of our and the previous generation in response to the Holocaust: how could anyone say that this is a form of Divine punishment?

It is when faced with profound tragedies such as these that our faith is really brought to the trial. It is at these times that we must muster the strength to continue to believe in a God that is involved in the world, in a God who cares, while at the same time not trivializing or lying to ourselves about the immensity, and hence, incomprehensibility, of the tragedies that we have experienced. We cannot understand what happened, but we nonetheless continue to believe that the world is a meaningful place, that God does care.

This then is the message of Tisha B’Av as a “mo’ed.” It would have been possible to look at the destruction of the Temple as a natural, historical event, as one nation – first the Babylonians, and then the Romans, striving for world domination, and the little country of Israel just having gotten in the way. The destruction of the Temple would then have been a meaningless tragedy. We, as Jews, refuse to believe this. These things happen because God wanted them to happen: “call for Me a “mo’ed” – an appointed time – to destroy My young men.”And hence, the destruction of the Temple, far from being a sign of God’s abandonment of the Jewish people, is in fact as sign of his relationship with them.

We mourn these events not only to express our grief, but because we believe that there are lessons that can be learned, that God was speaking to us through these events. While different people will hear different voices of God in these events, while some will strain to hear any voice at all, we believe there was a purpose, that it was a “mo’ed,” an appointed time. And if God cares enough to bring tragedy upon us, He certainly cares enough to bring happiness and goodness upon us. We mourn our tragedies with the belief that they are part of our relationship with God, part of the process that will end in great joy. Whoever mourns over Jerusalem will merit and see in its rebuilding.