For these things I weep; mine eye, mine eye runneth down with water, because the comforter that should relieve my soul is far from me: my children are desolate, because the enemy prevailed. (Lamentations, 1:16)
This week Jews around the world will observe one of our most solemn holidays, Tisha b’Av (the Ninth of Av). Tisha b’Av is a day of mourning on the Jewish calendar. It is a fast day compared only to Yom Kippur. Mourning rituals are observed, and we even refrain from studying Torah. Instead, we read the sad parts of Jeremiah, Lamentations, and, in some communities, The Book of Job. Why? Because on Tisha b’Av we remember some of the most horrific events in Jewish history, which all fell on or near the ninth day of the month of Av:
- The sin of the spies caused Hashem to decree that the Children of Israel who left Egypt would not be permitted to enter the land of Israel (Bamidbar 13:25-14:45),
- The first Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E.,
- The second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E.,
- Betar, the last fortress to hold out against the Romans during the Bar Kochba revolt in the year 135 C.E., fell, sealing the fate of the Jewish people,
- One year after the fall of Betar, the Temple area was plowed,
- In 1290, Edward I issued the Edict of Expulsion, expelling Jews from England, In 1492,
- Ferdinand of Spain issued the Alhambra Decree, setting Tisha B’Av as the final date by which not a single Jew would be allowed to walk on Spanish soil.
Now many people look at this list and this holiday and say, “This is the problems with you Jews. You just can’t let go of the past. Get over it!” But, for Jews, there is no “past” to get over. To be a Jew is be a part of a people unstuck in time. Past, present, and future are the same thing.
Time has a very different meaning for Jews than it does for most Western peoples. Stern, in his detailed study of time and process in ancient Judaism, notes that the verb system in Hebrew lacks tense. That is, verbs convey the action and describe it terms of completeness rather than in terms of when the act was performed. In other words, actions are either compete or yet to be completed. “The concept of past and future as segments of a subjective time-line,” Stern explains, “is a modern abstraction, derived from the general abstraction of time, that has little place in early rabbinic culture.”[i]
“Time is the border of eternity,” Heschel teaches us, “[s]een as eternity, the essence of time is attachment, communion. It is within time rather than space that we are able to commune, to worship, to love. It is within time that one day may be worth a thousand years.”[ii] For Jews, every moment from the past and every moment of the future is contained in this present moment. Time keeps Jews connected to eternity and to the ineffable. Our week revolves around Shabbat: the days of the week are number based on their distance from Shabbat. Shabbat is “a sanctuary in time.”
Judaism and Christianity share a vision of the World to Come, though we differ on how it will arrive and who will experience it. An important difference is what we call it. While Christians pray for End Times, Jews long for The End of Days, when there will be no time, only an eternal Shabbat.
Two Jews are eating lunch at their favorite restaurant, when one says to his friend, “The food here is terrible.” “Yes,” replies the other, “and such small portions.” Jews are never comfortable in the present, but our discomfort is vital to us as a people. It is this discomfort with the present that keeps us ever working to complete creation and usher in the World to Come. Tisha b’Av, and holidays like it, are an important link between this world and the World to Come. The past informs our present, and it is in the present that we create the future. As we recount our past suffering we do two important things: first, we acknowledge that the present is much better; second, we use our discomforted present as impetus to bring about our future.