Today is Rosh Chodesh Av, the month we will see the commemoration of the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, which we will remember on Tisha b’Av, the culmination of a three week period of mourning, which began with the Fast of the 17th Tammuz, commemorating the first breach in the walls of Jerusalem which led to the destruction of the First Temple.
In the Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:6) we read that “Five things happened to our ancestors on the 17th Tammuz, and five on the 9th Av (Tisha B’Av). On the 17th of Tammuz the tablets [containing the Ten Commandments] were broken; the daily sacrifice was discontinued; the walls of Jerusalem were breached; Apustamus, a Greek officer, burned a Torah scroll; and an idol was erected in the sanctuary of the Temple. On the Ninth of Av it was decreed that the generation of the desert would not enter the Land of Israel; the first temple was destroyed; the second temple was destroyed; Betar, (the last Jewish stronghold after the destruction of Jerusalem), was conquered; and Jerusalem was ploughed under. When the month of Av enters we diminish our joy.”
It is quite a list. The tradition is to cluster bad things together on one date, rather than to spread the pain of Jewish history throughout the year, colouring all our days with mourning. So there are texts that tell us that on Tisha B’Av the First Crusade began, Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain, and to bring us more up to date the First World War broke out on Tisha b’Av. There is a good case for observing Yom HaShoah on this date in years to come, adding the cataclysm of our times to the tragedies of our ancestors. Others would like to explicitly add Kristallnacht, which took place on the 9th of November, the ninth day of the eleventh month, a sort of secular resonance with the 9th day of Av.
We need a day to focus on our mourning, a day for remembering the violence and pain of our history. And one day each year is really enough, it contains what would otherwise be uncontainable and which could overlay our national narrative and suffocate us with grief. As a Reform Jew for whom the traditional yearning for the return of the Temple with its associated priestly and sacrificial system of worship is problematic, I find the best way to deal with Tisha b’Av is to place it in the context of the three weeks of increasing sadness known as “bein ha-metzarim” – being within a narrow and constrained place, and then to reflect on our history, remember, acknowledge, and move on. It is no surprise to me that the 7 weeks of haftarah readings from Tisha b’Av towards Rosh Hashanah are all about hope, about return to God, about opening out to possibility and the future – we move from between the straits (bein ha-metzarim) into the wide open space of freedom to think, feel, remember and explore . Then comes Rosh Hashanah, time to make a new start, a new promise to our best selves, a new commitment to the future.
The Talmud asks the question: “Why was the First Temple destroyed?” and it answers itself thus: “Because of three things that occurred in it: Idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed…” But then it goes on to develop its thought -“the Second Temple, where they occupied themselves with Torah, Commandments and acts of kindness, why was it destroyed? Because there was a prevailing practice of baseless hatred (sinat chinam). This teaches that baseless hatred is equated with three sins: idolatry, immorality and bloodshed.” (Yoma 9b)
Sinat Chinam is equivalent to three huge sins together. It caused the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion of the Jewish people from their land for almost two thousand years. So what do we do about the hating without cause, the prejudging of others, the gratuitous dislike of the other.
This is not necessarily an overpowering feeling that we are in thrall to, a visceral and ancient reflexive response that we can do nothing about. The responsa indicate that sinat chinam can be about simple ignoring of the humanity of the other, about not bothering to talk to them, to meet with them, to find out about them. Through sinat chinam we diminish the goodness in the world, as we refuse to recognise the goodness in each human person, to see them as valuable and possessing intrinsic worth. We have just over eight weeks now to reflect on how we treat others, both those we know and those we share our living spaces with – be it on the daily crowded train commute or the queue at the till, the person at the other end of the telephone or member of our own circle.
Today is Rosh Chodesh Av, and in Jerusalem this morning right on the site of the Temple precinct we have truly seen a demonstration of “sinat chinam” leading literally to “bein ha-metzarim.” Women of the Wall, a group who come together to pray together each Rosh Chodesh at the Western Wall that retains the Temple Mount, have once again found themselves the target of those who try to prevent them praying in tallit, speaking and singing their prayers out loud, and reading the Torah scroll in their service. Ultra Orthodox girls were bussed in to the area on the orders of their rabbis in order to crowd out other women who come to pray there. These girls were used as bodies in order to create a physical shortage of space, bein ha-metzarim. They were not primarily coming to pray, though some of them may well have done so, they were coming primarily to deny others their chosen prayer. Early photos and video show some faces contorted with hatred and anger, some comments on the Facebook page are vitriolic, for me the saddest photo is of an older woman, all her hair modestly covered in a blue scarf, blowing a whistle while staring balefully at the Women of the Wall in order to disrupt their prayers.
We have seven weeks after Tisha b’Av to try to notice the humanity of each person we meet, and so to think about how we behave towards them. This is good work of teshuvah, for in meeting the other and recognising the spark of God within them, we become ready to face the spark of God within ourselves, the voice that reminds us that on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we will stand in the presence of the heavenly court as we judge our lives so far, and the perspective of that court will be mediated with our own attempts to be the best person we can really be.