Sunday, August 14, 2005

Tisha b'Av

Today is one of the lessser known Jewish holidays, called Tisha b'Av, which is simply the date, the 9th of the month of "Av". This is the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, and the holiday is marked by fasting and mourning in commemoration of great tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, many coincidentally occurring on the same day. (Actually, for particularly observant Jews, there is a 3 week period of mourning, culminating on the 9th of Av.) It's sort of like September 11 or December 7 for Americans, or October Black Monday for stock investors, but as if the Twin Towers, Pearl Harbor, the stock market crash, and several other and bigger tragedies had all occurred on the same date. That's Tisha b'Av.

If you've ever read the Old Testament history of the Jewish people, you'll recall that it's a long account of G-d smiting the enemies of the Jews, alternating with G-d allowing the enemies to smite the Jews when they grow complacent, hypocritical, and forget about G-d. When the Jews were first given the land of Israel, they built a great Temple according to G-d's instructions. In 586 BCE, when the Babylonians conquered Israel and dragged the Jews off into a long captivity, the 9th of Av was the day that the Temple was destroyed. Eventually, when the Persians sacked the Babylonians, the Jews were allowed to return to Israel, and the Temple was rebuilt. Much later, in 70 CE, when the Jews attempted to rebel against Roman occupation, the Romans destroyed the second Temple. This also happened on the 9th of Av. (The famous "wailing wall" in Jerusalem is a remnant of the destroyed Temple.) In 135 CE, again on the 9th of Av, the Romans vanquished the last outpost of Jewish rebels, and Jews were scattered around the world. One of the better places for Jews to end up, at least for many centuries, was Spain, which under Moorish influence had a relatively tolerant coexistence of Christians, Muslims, and Jews. But eventually there arose the Spanish Inquisition, and by royal edict all Jews (and Muslims) were expelled from Spain, with the last Jew to be off of Spanish soil by a certain date in 1492. Yup, 9th of Av once again. (As Tevye may have said, only the Chosen People get to be so blessed.)

This year, Tisha b'Av will be fraught with extra significance because as soon as the holiday ends, the Israeli government is scheduled to begin the controversial evacuation of the Gaza (and a few West Bank) settlements. While this move is apparently supported by the majority of Israeli citizens, as well as majority of US Jews, it is a highly divisive and emotional issue, and those who oppose it do so vehemently. It is inherent that the settlers who inhabited these outpost settlements were courageous, determined, and motivated by either a political patriotic form of Zionism or a religiously-motivated Zionism. For the political Zionists, I hope that just as they moved to the settlements in the first place for the good of the state of Israel, they can now voluntarily pull up their stakes and move, also for the good of the state of Israel. And in fact, some of them have, although political opinions differ as to whether the pull-out is indeed in the best interests of the state. For the religious Zionists, there seems no room for compromise. They are there because the Torah tells them that G-d gave all of the land of Israel to the Jews. As some have said, if we pack up and quit Gush Katif (one of the orthodox Gaza settlements), why not pack up and quit Jerusalem, Haifa, and the rest of Israel as well? Alas, it's hard to imagine how to reconcile that kind of attitude with any practical path toward peace or even security for Israel (short of counting on G-d to smite all of Israel's enemies, which doesn't appear to be His present intention). Thus, for some the Gaza evacuations will be seen as yet another catastrophe to fall on Tisha b'Av, while for others it will be accepted as part of Israel's trying to make its way forward given the realities of the world.

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