The Burning Issues: Tisha B'Av

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

The Burning Issues: Tisha B'Av
Rabbi Arthur Waskow *

Tisha B'Av: The Temples burn. No surprise: the Holy Temple is a microcosm of our universe, so it burns in searing dry midsummer when there is no rain, when the chamsin wind scorches the earth until the land itself seems ready to burn.

We are exhausted: the burnout of our selves and souls.

And yet, with all its pain, the image turns to birthing: The Rabbis of the Talmud teach that on the afternoon of Tisha B'Av, the very day of the destruction, Mashiach -- Messiah -- is born. Not yet to come into the fullness of Messianic time, but already birthing new life.

This is a teaching that in our own lives we know is true. When someone we love dies, Jewish wisdom teaches that we must lift a shovel-full of earth to place upon the coffin. With our own muscles, we must acknowledge that the death has happened. Only so are we freed into new life.

And in the same way, when an old idea dies, or an old friendship, or a worn-out social system -- when these things die, we must mourn them fully and deeply if we are to free ourselves to move forward into new life.

We could have dismissed the burning of the Jewish Temple as a momentary military defeat: The Babylonians burned the building? So what?! -- That is what armies do. The Romans destroyed it once again? -- So what?! That is what all empires do.

Instead, we affirmed that this destruction encoded an existential, archetypal truth. God's Own Self went into exile.

This notion that Tisha B'Av encodes a universal truth is not an invention of the Modern Age. Long ago, the Rabbis of the Talmud assigned as the Prophetic reading of the Fast of Av the book that begins "Eicha!" -- the howling outcry of the Book of Lamentations, "HOW lonely sits the city."

And then the Rabbis ask the terrifying question: Where and when was this wailing "Eicha" first heard? And they answer that it was when God first called "Ayekka" (the same consonants with only different vowels), "Where are you??!!" to Adam after the mis-doing in the Garden of Delight.

This is not an answer out of narrowly Jewish pain for the sake of a narrowly Jewish history. It is an answer that brings our own Jewish life-experience of the Temple's burning into every individual human heart, and all the human race.

The first and deepest exile: spiritual galut. To say it is "spiritual" is not to cut it off from earthiness; indeed, this first misdoing in the Garden of Delight was precisely that we ate wrongly from the earth, and the result was that we were cut off from earth and found ourselves at war with her. Every spiritual exile involves an ethical/ political alienation, and every political exile is rooted in a spiritual failure.

The political exile and the burning of the Temple comes because we have as a society failed to encounter God: we have exiled ourselves.

The first Temple was destroyed by the Babylonian Empire; the second, by the Roman Empire. But the Prophets who wrote just before and after the first burning and the Rabbis who lived after the second burning were not satisfied to blame the enemy. They taught that we had made ourselves vulnerable to these attacks by acting irresponsibly.

They taught that the First Exile came because we embraced idols instead of the One Breath that breathes the universe -- idols that are only bits and pieces of the Whole, idols that have no life in them. And according to the Book of Chronicles, the Exile lasted as many years as the People of Israel had denied the Land of Israel the restful sabbatical years to which it was entitled: the Land made Shabbos after all, through famine, exile, desolation. As for the Second Exile, the Rabbis taught that it came from our own unreasoning hatred of each other.

Today, what are our Roman and Babylonian Empires? And what are our equivalents of the idolatry, the exploitation of the earth, and the unreasoning hatred that opened us up the Imperial conquest?

Today we -- not just the Jewish people but the whole human race -- stand on the brink of burning the holiest Temple -- the whole earth. The fire that besets us comes from a new form of idolatry: techno-idolatry. It is not the technology itself but our addiction/ idolatry of it that endangers us.

In this burning, the imperious Romes and Babylons of our own day are usually global corporations, perpetrating a Global Gobble on the earth and tens of thousands of its life-forms, on regional habitats and eco-systems, and on human cultures, communities, and local economies.

But they could not do this if the communities of earth had not invited this imperial destruction. The institution of the global corporation requires the culture of greed and techno-idolatry. For example:

Automobiles are useful; but to make tens of millions of them when we know that the carbon dioxide they produce is scorching the globe -- that is addiction.

Automobiles are useful -- but to pave the ancient Land of Israel with concrete for the Trans-Israel Highway that no one needs -- that is idolatry.

The Temple was destroyed by fire; will the Earth be shattered by smoke and the Land be destroyed with cement?

The first "Eicha," "Ayekka," "WHERE ARE YOU?!" arose from the human race's misuse of its new learning, its eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Distinctions and Divisions.

Can we stop short before the Destruction itself is upon us, and learn to bring a new way of life to birth before disaster? That is what Tisha B'Av is there to teach us: the danger, and the possibility.

If we can accept that an old history of excitement and accomplishment has now gone too far, is already deadly and infecting us with death -- then we can turn our Tisha B'Av into a day to birth Mashiach. Then we can give new life to a new world. We can move through the Seven Weeks of Consolation to Rosh Hashanah, to the coming of new water in the wells of Abraham, to "HaYom harat olam, Today a world is newly conceived!"
* Rabbi Waskow is the director of The Shalom Center <> and the author of Godwrestling -- Round 2, among other works.

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