The Moral Lessons of Tish’ah Be’Av

Devarim Eikev | Tishah Be'av By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jul 13, 2002 / 5762 | Torah Commentary | Holidays

The Shabbat before Tishah b’Av bears the special name of “Shabbat Hazon,” which I would translate as “the Sabbath of Vision.” The name derives from the first word of the haftarah for the day, “the prophecies (hazon) of Isaiah son of Amoz.” However, in the context of the calamities to be recalled on the Ninth of Av, the force of the word is not technical or restricted, but spiritual and expansive. 

The function of prophets in ancient Israel went well beyond foretelling the future. They gave voice to a vision which reality consistently defied. As passionately set forth by them, the defining mission of ancient Israel exceeded its religious capacity. Hence, the unrelievedly critical tone of their prophecies. Driven by a sense of calling which they often struggled to resist, prophets were destined “to uproot and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” (Jeremiah 1:10) Thus on the eve of Tishah b’Av, we focus our sight on the vision of our national destiny that history failed to realize.

Isaiah, who lived in Judah more than one hundred years before the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE, inveighed against a ritual punctiliousness bereft of moral virtue. Without the latter God found the former utterly repugnant:

Your new moons and fixed seasons 
fill Me with loathing; 
They are become a burden to Me, 
I cannot endure them. 
And when you lift up your hands, 
I will turn My eyes away from you; 
Though you pray at length, 
I will not listen. 
Your hands are stained with crime – 
Wash yourselves clean; 
Put your evil doings 
Away from My sight. 
Cease to do evil; 
Learn to do good 
Devote yourselves to justice; 
Aid the wronged. 
Uphold the rights of the orphan; 
Defend the cause of the widow (Isaiah, 1:14-17).

Implicit in this rebuke is a vision of Judah’s chosenness in terms of social justice. That alone, and not a Temple unblemished by impurity, will spare Jerusalem the fate of other cities. “Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and they that return of her with righteousness.” ( 1:27) The coordinates of history are moral.

This was also the message of the two previous haftarot from Jeremiah. Collectively, these three prophetic readings before Tishah b’Av are rife with admonition. Their choice was not inspired by any connection to the content of the parashah, bur rather to prepare us for the only other twenty-four hour fast of the Jewish calendar besides Yom Kippur. On a still deeper level, these haftarot point to the unique achievement of the Jewish people to survive the destruction of their national shrine and the loss of their homeland. Exile did not lead to the gradual demise of national identity or a distinctive way of life. The prophets had ensured that Judaism would come to fathom defeat not as a consequence of military inferiority but as one of moral decadence. It was God who had employed the Babylonians and the Romans to punish our ancestors for violating the covenant accepted at Sinai. As long as that belief held, that “because of our sins were we exiled from our land” (as stated in the Musaf festival Amidah), Jews no matter how impotent politically or militarily exercised a measure of control over their fate. Piety was the key to power. The inner life could subordinate history to vision. What could be more fitting preparation for Tishah b’Av than to ponder the role of religious resolve in the tortuous course of Jewish survival?

These considerations are neither abstract nor archaic. Spirit still determines destiny. On a recent trip to Israel, I met with Avraham Burg, the speaker of the Knesset, at his request. With a sense of urgency, he elaborated on the spiritual vacuum at the heart of Israeli society. All the old myths that had nurtured the Zionist revolution were dead. And unalloyed religious fanaticism must not take their place. Israel would not make it without a new sturdy and sober vision that could reaffirm the validity of its being and vindicate the suffering to preserve it. The purpose of his lament was to embolden me to try harder to enlarge the presence of Conservative Judaism in Israel. Our movement, he contended, had been Zionist long before Herzl, long before our Orthodox or Reform compatriots embraced Zionism. We had never downplayed or denied the national dimension of Judaism or the centrality of Zion. Our ideology contained precisely the mix of tradition and modernity that might fill the spiritual void that currently endangers the Israeli will to endure. Burg told me that he felt so strongly about this issue that he was ready to assist our efforts in any way possible. Israel needed values and ideals as well as jobs and ambulances.

Two days later at the World Zionist Congress a courageous speech by Aaron Barak, the chief justice of Israel’s Supreme Court, confirmed for me the focus by Burg on the spiritual side of the ledger. With no less urgency, Barak addressed the unique of character of Israel as a state both Jewish and democratic. The phrase had been enshrined in Israel’s first fundamental law adopted in 1992 dealing with the dignity and freedom of the individual, a statement of principles anchored in the “values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” Barak, while avowing the Jewishness of Israel, insisted that it had to accord equality to its non-Jewish citizens. To render the duality compatible, there would be times when judges and legislators had to adopt a more universal reading of Judaism than a particularistic one. Yet Barak’s balanced formulation did not please everyone. Likudniks and religious nationalists often interrupted him with prolonged outbursts of disdain. There is hardly a national consensus in Israel on whether the state should accord parity to its Jewish and democratic legacies.

The mood of the country is sober, despite the momentary lull in suicide bombers. Tishah b’Av no longer seems like a fast day solely for Jews in exile. Precariousness remains the inescapable condition of Jewish existence. But Tishah b’Av is also a time for self-reflection, to confront the basic questions we prefer to ignore. This year more than ever, the fast reminds us – Israeli and diaspora Jews alike – that in its quest for security, Israel must not lose its soul. The vision of a democratic state anchored in the totality of Jewish creativity is crucial to sustaining our sense of virtue in dark times. Our moral sensitivity must continue to match our military might.

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Devarim are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.