A few years ago, I happened to be in Los Angeles for the fast of Tisha B’Av. Towards the end of the fast, between afternoon and evening prayers, the rabbi of the shul asked if I could say a few words to the congregation to explain the significance of the holy day and the fast.
On Tisha B’(the 9th day of the month of) Av, the Jewish people mourn the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is one of the four mandatory fasts of the Jewish faith, and one of the more difficult ones, since it takes place during the heat of the summer months, starting before sundown and ending after sundown the next day.
On Tisha B’Av, even pregnant women and those who have recently given birth are to fast, although they are not required to do so on the other three fast days. All are forbidden not only from eating, but also from bathing and other pleasantries that are permitted during the other fasts.
The reason that the rules of mourning are so strict is that on this day, the Jewish people are remembering the greatest national catastrophe in our history. The devastation of our army, country, and the leadership of our homeland all culminated in that final tragedy, the burning of our holy Temple in our capital city, Jerusalem. The destruction of the central holy place of the nation of Israel symbolized the taking of our land and all of our dignity with it.
This is what we should consider when trying to understand the suicide of the last remaining Jewish fighters at Masada shortly afterward. They saw no home to return to after the war – nowhere to be proud again.
Throughout the long exile that followed, ever since the destruction of our Temple and sovereign country, Jews in every corner of the Diaspora, be they in Yemen, Poland or Morocco, have prayed three times each day to see the rebuilding of the Temple, the holy city and country of Israel.
How amazing it is now, to live in times when the Jewish people have begun to fulfill that ancient dream of returning to the land and rebuilding our national home and reviving our Hebrew language and culture.
But on that hot summer day in Los Angeles, towards the end of the long and hard day of fasting, I looked around at my fellow Jews sitting on the floor of their magnificent and air-conditioned synagogue in their slippers and suits. Their nice cars were parked in the shul’s private parking lot, all not so far from their beautiful American homes and Jewish community schools and other institutions. And when I realized that they were investing more in building their community’s Jewish services, I became sad. I realized that they feel that they are at home, and not in exile. They are making plans to be there for many more years. They have forgotten the essence of what we have been mourning for, for so long. It is heart breaking.
It dawned on me that my Jewish brothers and sisters are comfortable here in the exile (which they prefer to call “Diaspora”). They are acting out the Jewish custom of fasting on this holy day, but have detached it from its true point, since its meaning is to preserve our national aspiration to return to our land, rebuild it, and treasure it forever. They feel content to go one day without food and fun, and follow it up with a kosher Chinese or Sushi treat.
I felt a real pain for my brothers who have become so absorbed in the comforts of the West that they have become deaf to the inner calling of our national soul, to return to our true home in the East. I had the urge to tell my brothers sitting there on the floor some 24 hours into the longest and hardest fast of our yearly cycle that they, their community and beautiful shul, mikvah and kosher food are the greatest evidence of what we mourn for today, the destruction of our Temple and dispersion of our people.
I pray for their return.