A lesson from Tisha B’Av

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate; for I say to you, you shall see me no more till you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!’”

Then Yeshua went out and departed from the temple, and his disciples came up to show him the buildings of the temple. And Yeshua said to them, “Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.”
Matthew 23:37 – 24:2

The temple of which Yeshua spoke, built by the Jewish remnant that returned to Jerusalem under Ezra and Nehemiah, and later expanded and beautified by Herod the Great, stood for nearly 500 years. Finally, it was destroyed in the year 70 on Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av—the same date that the temple built by Solomon had been destroyed many centuries before. Both temples were desecrated and burned by occupying imperial forces, who slaughtered many of the inhabitants of the holy city. In both events, Tisha B’Av was a day of sorrow, defeat, and exile of the Jewish people that has ramifications even to this day.

There was, however, one apparent difference in the circumstances of the two catastrophes, which led to a discussion recorded in the Talmud (Yoma 9b): “Why was the first temple destroyed? Because during its time there were three sins: idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed…. But in the time of the second temple, they studied Torah, performed the commandments, and did kind deeds. Why then was it destroyed? Because there was hatred without a cause—sinat chinam—among them.”

What was the hatred of which this passage speaks? In the years leading up to and including the Jewish revolt against Rome, great divisions emerged among the Jewish people. Some Jews were preparing for armed uprising, and others opposed it. Some were in active collusion with the hated Romans, and others, zealots called Sicarii, used concealed daggers to assassinate Jews they suspected of collusion with Rome.

The phrase sinat chinam, or hatred without a cause, comes from the Hebrew Scriptures, where it appears several times. Perhaps the most striking appearance is in Psalm 69:5 (69:4 in Christian Bibles): “Those who hate me without cause are more than the hairs of my head.” This is a Psalm of David, but readers for centuries have seen David’s description of sufferings as going beyond his own experience. Many rabbinic commentators read the entire Psalm as a prophetic vision of Israel’s sufferings during Exile, and of her eventual restoration: “For God will save Zion, and will rebuild the cities of Judah; that they may dwell there, and have it in possession. And the seed of his servants shall inherit it; and those who love his name shall dwell in it” (Ps. 69:36–37; 35–36 in Christian Bibles). Thus, in his classic commentary, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes, “David beholds the people of Israel, generation after generation, wandering through the dark centuries of exile, and, in this psalm, he utters the thoughts that rise up in Israel’s soul as it marches through the history of nations.” Note, however, that David describes Israel’s sufferings in the first person, not “they hate them without cause,” but “they hate me without cause.” As Israel’s king, David anticipates and embodies the future story of his people in his own life. He identifies so strongly with his people that his sufferings are a prophetic sign of the sufferings to come upon all Israel.

If David’s sufferings foreshadow the sufferings of Israel, however, they even more clearly point to the sufferings of his descendant the Messiah. Like David, Messiah ben David will take upon himself the destiny of all Israel and act it out. Thus, when Yeshua drove the moneychangers out of the temple courts, “his disciples remembered that it was written [in Psalm 69:10 (9)], ‘Zeal for your house has consumed me” (John 2:17). Later, when Yeshua described his rejection by the religious authorities of his day, he told his disciples that it happened “that the word might be fulfilled that is written in their law, ‘They hated me without a cause’” (John 15:25). Like David in Psalm 69:9 (8), Yeshua can say, “I have become a stranger to my brothers, and an alien to my mother’s children.”

Yeshua, as he embodies Israel’s story of exile and eventual redemption, experiences hatred without a cause and is rejected by the rulers of his own generation. This is the same groundless hatred that the rabbinic literature ascribes as the cause of the temple’s destruction just 40 years after the crucifixion. Indeed, a famous passage in the Talmud records warnings of the destruction going back 40 years before the event.

Our Rabbis taught: During the last forty years before the destruction of the Temple the lot [‘For the Lord’] did not come up in the right hand [of the high priest]; nor did the crimson-colored strap become white [on Yom Kippur as a sign of forgiveness]; nor did the westernmost light shine; and the doors of the Temple would open by themselves [as a sign of the temple’s vulnerability], until Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai rebuked them, saying: Temple, Temple, why will you alarm yourself? I know about you that you will be destroyed, for Zechariah ben Ido has already prophesied concerning you: ‘Open your doors, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour your cedars’ (Yoma 39b).

It may be simplistic to state that the temple was destroyed because the religious authorities rejected Yeshua, but surely the rabbinic explanation is on target: “Why was it destroyed? Because there was hatred without a cause among them.” Yeshua so deeply identifies with his people Israel that he becomes the ultimate recipient of hatred without a cause . . . and within a generation the temple is gone.

Paradoxically, today’s Messianic Jewish community must guard against allowing hatred without a cause to divide us from the wider Jewish community. We might feel that we, like Yeshua himself, have been on the receiving end of sinat chinam. But, if we follow Yeshua, we will continue to identify with all Israel and take responsibility for any unnecessary division we have caused. We will express our solidarity in tangible ways and not allow our legitimate differences with the rest of our people over Messiah to alienate us. This is one reason why it is vital to maintain our connection with Jewish life and tradition. Even though we may remain marginal because of our loyalty to Yeshua, from our side we must eliminate sinat chinam and stand with our people, as Yeshua did when he took upon himself the sufferings and exile of all Israel. When we consider the agonies of the land and people of Israel today, the demands of Israel’s struggle against Hamas, and the recrudescence of anti-Semitism in the form of anti-Zionism, such a show of solidarity becomes even more compelling.

Tisha B’Av is the anniversary not only of the beginning of exile, but of many tragic events during the exile, culminating in the expulsion of the once-glorious Jewish community of Spain in 1492. Paradoxically, the convergence of so many similar tragedies on this date provides a note of hope, because there appears to be a divine pattern behind it all. The exile is not a meaningless turn of history, but is part of the much larger plan of redemption. Thus, one tradition has it that Messiah will be born on Tisha B’Av.

So, how should we respond to this hope? Not passively, but with prayer and advocacy for Israel and the Jewish people. As we act in solidarity with our people on this day, we can pray for victory over our sins, the end of exile, and the restoration of Jerusalem that is a key to the restoration of the whole earth. The conclusion of the Book of Lamentations that we read aloud on Tisha B’Av provides the words for this prayer: Hashivenu Adonai elecha v’nashuva. Chadesh yameinu ki-kedem. “Turn us again, O Lord, to you and we shall return; renew our days as of old!”

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