D’Var Torah: August 12, 2016

Shabbat Shalom Friends,

In lieu of a D’var Torah on Devarim (Deuteronomy), I wanted to take a little time to reflect on one of the lesser-known observances in Jewish tradition. That is the observance of the fast day of Tisha B’Av. Tisha B’Av, or the 9th of Av, recalls the destruction of the two Temples in Israel (586 B.C.E. and 70 C.E.). It also commemorates the fall of Bar Kochba’s fortress at Betar during his rebellion against Roman rule. Also, according to tradition Jews were expelled both from Spain (1492) and from England (1290) on Tisha B’Av.

Because of all of these communal catastrophes, Tisha B’Av is viewed as a ‘national’ day of mourning. We are to abstain from certain rituals and traditions, and instead spend the day fasting and reading from the book of Eicha (Lamentations). An interesting aside is that when Tisha B’Av falls on Shabbat, like this year, the fast is observed on Sunday. This is because the oneg (joy) of Shabbat overrides the sadness of Tisha B’Av.

One of the reasons why Tisha B’Av never caught on in the Reform world is because we are not really sad about the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. These Temples represented the sacrificial cult. In ancient days, our ancestors worshipped God by offering up sacrifices. It was only with the destruction of the Temples that allowed for the evolution of a prayer-driven religious tradition. This is why we really do not pray for the restoration of the Temple, which is part of our traditional liturgy. The sacrificial cult was replaced by Rabbinic Judaism. This is the Judaism all Jews observe to one degree or another to this very day.

But I also think there is something else going on. There is a movement within some denominations away from what we might call “Oy Vey” Judaism. “Oy Vey” Judaism is defined in part by surviving all the bad things that have happened to us. Or as the old joke goes, “they tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.”

But it is very hard to sustain, in a free and open society, religious traditions based on negative experiences. It’s not that we should forget our history, but instead that we should not observe our tradition simply because of our history.

There are many reasons to grieve and mourn in the world. Those are all readily apparent. What is harder to do is find ways to celebrate and rejoice. Judaism should be fun. Judaism should be enjoyable. It should move us and inspire us. Living Jewishly should be something to be celebrated. It is not meant to be done simply out of a sense of obligation. It was never intended to be a religion of dread.

So to this end, I would encourage you to do something Jewish this Shabbat that makes you happy. Even the rabbis knew that Tisha B’Av should not supersede the joy that Shabbat represents. And we too should continue to strive to celebrate our tradition. For as we learn, our past is a part of us, but it does not have to define us.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Benjamin Sharff