I entered Tisha B’Av, perfectly prepared to observe my now usual custom of fasting from Sundown to Star-up. For the past decade, I have fasted on Tisha B’Av and for most of that time on the other minor fast days connected to the destruction of the Temple, and I have always had a good reason. This year, I discovered, in the middle of Tisha B’Av a good reason not to fast.
When I started fasting on Tisha B’Av I did not yet live in Israel, but I had become attached to my Jewish heritage and my fasting represented an expression of my desire to cast in my personal destiny with that of my people – to take responsibility for our collective fate – to be an active part of the nation’s life. Fasting as a Jew in Exile made perfect sense – I was literally mourning my exile – the historical circumstance that meant I as a Jew was not living in Judea.
On moving to Israel, fasting on Tisha B’Av became a little more complex, but nevertheless entirely reasonable to my own thinking. While I personally was no longer in exile (had I ever really been on a personal level?), now that I was back in the oh-so-imperfect third commonwealth of the state of Israel, I could see that there was so much still to mourn. As an Israeli, my mourning on Tisha B’Av was for our failure to learn the lessons of our exile. We may have succeeded to re-establish sovereignty in a political, physical sense, but we had not freed ourselves of the baseless hatred that led to the destruction of the second temple. We had not truly committed ourselves to building a society that could be an example to others. On becoming an Israeli, my fasting changed – I was no longer mourning for a mythical past – but rather for a very real present – I was mourning our inability to live up to our own promises to ourselves. Our inability to be our own redeemers.
So what changed this year?
As I was teaching a class that was meant to be about how we have failed to change our exilic thinking, and how exile forced us into being a more gendered hierarchical society, it hit me that mourning is a process one goes through, which is deliberately limited. You are meant to come out in a different place after it. It is meant to change you. Instituting the idea of fasting to represent our mourning for the temple (which we can then understand differently as our mourning for the incomplete job of rebuilding our society) is self-destructive, or at the least limits growth. We need to go past mourning. Only by actively stopping the slightly self-indulgent act of mourning can we stop viewing ourselves as victims of circumstance.
Here, I want to introduce another drash that I read in preparation for Shabbat Hazon this year. The term Eicha, which opens Megilat Eicha that we read on Tisha B’Av and also appears in the Haftarah for the Shabbat beforehand, and in parashat Devarim which is always read on Shabbat Hazon appears 18 times in Torah. One time, the same written word is actually read not as Eicha, but as Ayeka. The two words both seem to introduce questions, but they could not have more different meanings. Eicha, means “How?” – but when it is used, it is usually exclamatory rather than actually interrogatively understood – i.e. it’s not really a question. When we use Eicha, we are asking “How did this happen to me?” We are bemoaning our luck, our fate. We are self-empathising, or worse, asking for sympathy. When we hear Ayeka, once, in the story of Gan Eden, G-d is asking us where we are. Of course if we understand that G-d already knows where we are, we know that this question is not meant literally – where are you? But rather, where are you at? What have you become that you could sin so? Why are you trying to hide? What are you trying to hide? The Ayeka question turns the conversation from self-pity to self-analysis, from sympathy to introspection. It doesn’t belong in the process of mourning.
Tisha B’Av needs to stop being a day in which we mourn our national fate – for there is nothing to be mourned. We are a wealthy prosperous nation. We have had trouble in the past, we have got through it, we are well prepared for the future. But we haven’t learnt from our own mistakes. On this we should concentrate on Tisha B’Av: our physical exile has ended, how do we bring an end to our spiritual exile. If next year, I feel fasting will help me find an answer to that question, I will gladly go hungry.