D’varim, Tisha B’Av and Jewish Resilience

For longer than I have been alive, the State of Israel has existed. The borders have changed over the years, but I have never known a world where Israel did not exist. Orthodox liturgies pray for the coming of the Davidic Messiah, the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the re-establishment of the sacrificial cult. Among non-orthodox Jews, even if our liturgy contains references to “moshiach ben David” the call to rebuild and re-establish ancient sacrificial rites is often deemed as little more than symbolic. So, what does Tisha B’Av mean to post-enlightenment Jews who may not believe in a personal messiah, have never known a world without Israel, who do not see themselves returning to animal sacrifices?

A partial answer may be found in this week’s parashah, D’varim. As the nation prepares to enter the Promised Land, Moses delivers the first of several oratories that make up the majority the book of Deuteronomy. This first parashah serves as a prologue to the entire book. As Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut z”l wrote, “[m]ost of the content of the prologue represents a recounting of events well known to the readers of Exodus, Leviticus, and especially Numbers.”[1] Rabbi Plaut is referring to ancient readers within the context of his discussion about the authorship of Deuteronomy, but we too are readers of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers and the stories recounted in Deuteronomy speak to us as well. As we read in verse 6, “The Eternal our God spoke to us…”[2] ‘Our’ and ‘us’ are the key words in this and the verses that follow.

Moses is not merely addressing his contemporaries. He speaks to those who have gone before him (those who died in the wilderness), those who stand ready now to claim the Promised Land with Joshua, and those yet to come. We and our future generations are “those yet to come” – an echo of parashat Nitzavim (Deut. 29:13-14). He recounts victories, trials and tribulations experienced in the wilderness and he addresses Israel as “all of you”. The language and setting of this parashah clearly indicates that the tragedies and missteps of our people are also something that we collectively own. As Moses addresses the children of those who died in the wilderness – the generation that will actually cross the Jordan into the Promised Land – he does not speak of the lack of faith of the previous generation as something “they did”, as something only in the past. Moses speaks to this generation as if they too are the sinners. Thus, the language itself reinforces the notion of Jewish history as a collective experience. Each year at the Pesach seder, we recall the deliverance from Egypt in the same sort of inclusive, collective language: “when we were slaves in Egypt”, “when the Holy One liberated us …” etc. Indeed the entire ritual of the four children is centred on reinforcing this very notion. This experience is not just something shared by the generations but through them.

In many of our festivals we joyfully celebrate the triumphs of Jewish history and count ourselves as part of them. Aside from the Exodus story, we rejoice in the success of the Maccabees over Antiochus, even though non-orthodox Jews would have been an anathema to the Hasmoneans.  We revel in Esther and Mordecai outwitting Haman, whether or not the story of Esther is truly Jewish in origin. We exult in the chalutzim’s victory over those who tried to prevent Israel’s re-establishment in 1948, even though we were not personally on the battlefield. We count these Jewish victories as “ours”.

Tisha B’Av, however, is not about victory, at least not on the face of it. The destruction of the First and Second Temples were devastating in terms of loss of life, loss of home and the existential threat to our people. Indeed, Lamentations Rabbah 1:1, presents a picture of God also sitting in mourning over the destruction of the Temple.

This brings me back to Erev Tisha B’Av and my earlier question: what can it mean to Jews who have never known a world (Thank God!) where Israel did not exist as an actual physical, political entity and are not anticipating a return to animal sacrifices? If Jewish history is to be understood as a shared, collective experience and responsibility to the covenant, then there has to be more to Tisha B’Av than fasting and reading Lamentations. When Moses addresses the generation born in the wilderness as if they too had committed the transgressions of their parents, his intent is for them learn from their history. If the journey Moses recalls is to be understood and embraced as “our” journey, then the rest of Jewish history is, likewise, ours.

So what can we learn from the destruction of the ancient Temples and the words of this parashah?

One lesson is the strength and indomitable spirit of our people. Throughout our wanderings in the wilderness and in the generations after as we settled in the land, we faltered and fell only to rise again. From the ashes of the ancient temples Rabbinic Judaism sprouted and flourished. The study of Torah, Midrash, Mishnah, and Talmud; the writing of codes, liturgies, poetry and songs, even the embracing of haskalah (the Enlightenment) have become part of our Avodah sh’balev (the sacrificial offerings of our hearts) that have replaced the sacrificial offerings of old. We have not only survived but thrived in many different lands around the world and returned to rebuild and re-establish Israel as our home. Our shared history contains many sad chapters as well as triumphant ones, but our faith, our people remain resilient.


About the author:

Rabbi Lindsey bat Joseph is the executive director for the Centre for Jewish Excellence (CJE), an outreach organisation operating in southern British Columbia, Canada. The CJE provides rabbinic services to unaffiliated Jews and small communities throughout the region who are open to a progressive, inclusive approach to Jewish tradition. Rabbi bat Joseph is also the Department Head for Humanities and Social Sciences at Alexander College in Vancouver, B.C. and a lecturer on the Jewish Bible and religion in the Continuing Studies faculty at Simon Fraser University. 


[1] Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, “Prologue: First Discourse”, in The Torah, a Modern Commentary, revised edition, ed. David E.S. Steirn, (New York: URJ Press, 2005), 1159.

[2] This and all biblical quotations are from The Torah, a Modern Commentary, revised edition, ed. David E.S. Stein, (New York: URJ Press, 2005), which uses the Jewish Publication Society’s translations from 1999, 1985, and 1962.