Tisha b’Av is a kind of “Bermuda Triangle in Time” for the Jewish people. Most people know that both the First and the Second Temples were destroyed on that day. That would be enough to qualify this day as a day of misfortune. But what is less known is how far back it goes.
Cycles of history
The story begins with the flight from Egypt. The people of Israel had received the Torah and were poised to enter the Land. However, they were fearful and uncertain. After all, they had been slaves all their lives. They had suffered every kind of degradation and humiliation. If ever there was a nation with “learned helplessness” this was it! So they asked Moshe to send representatives of each tribe to check out the land they were to enter, size it up, and report back.
The representatives set out and came back 40 days later with their report: it is a beautiful and fruitful land, but it’s populated by giants! Its people are fierce and hostile and will easily wipe out this pitiful band of freed slaves.
Well naturally, this interpretation was colored by their own state of mind. “The enemy you flee from appears more numerous than the one you fight.” Not the last intelligence failure based on the misinterpretation of information.
The result was that they lost faith entirely, in themselves and in God. The Torah relates how the people wept all night on hearing this false report, and a terrible gloom spread over the whole camp. And so they lost their chance. They were told that the entire generation would remain in the desert for 40 years, one year for every day that the scouts had surveyed the land, and that none of that generation would survive to enter the land. The task of settling the land would fall to those who were born in the desert and raised in freedom.
A midrash on self-fulfilling prophecies
The midrash—the expression of the dreamstate of our people—relates that because the Children of Israel wept without cause, God declared that He would make that day a day for weeping. “You wept in vain. I will establish this date for you as a time of real weeping for all generations.” (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 29a).
That day was Tisha B’Av.
And sure enough, this prophecy has been borne out. It seems as if just about every calamity ever to hit us has either started on Tisha b’Av or has taken a turn for the worse on that day—a Fourth Dimensional Bermuda Triangle.
But that’s not the end of the story. There is also a prophecy that Tisha b’Av will one day be a day of joy and celebration. Another midrash has it that the Mashiah will be born on Tisha b’Av.
Now, midrashim are like seedpods holding the seeds of truth within them, which can only blossom when planted in the mind and heart of the listener.
Our initial reaction to the story of the Generation of the Desert might be: How could it have been otherwise? How could anyone expect the people to believe in themselves after what they’d been through? Something happens to one who is enslaved, especially if he is enslaved from a young age: he comes to distrust his own strength, but he also cannot trust anyone else. He says in his heart: “If I cannot help myself, no one else will help me. I must do nothing that risks revealing my weakness, for the weak do not survive!” A free man may say, God will help me. But a slave too often feels himself enslaved at the will of God. He feels the hand of God in every blow and every cold blast of wind. He does not expect any mercy from God.
Someone in that position cannot undo by an act of faith what experience has beaten into him. He can be rescued amidst incredible wonders (the Parting of the Sea, or the rebirth of Israel in our day), but how can he trust? Perhaps all this is just the raising of hopes in order to dash them when it is all taken away again. Perhaps we are being rescued now only to be made an example of for the sake of future generations.
The chance that the generation of the desert was offered—to trust that God would make up in miracles what they lacked in strength—was something that they could not believe in, simply by virtue of their past. It was a test that they could not pass.
Failure has its own lessons
The irony was that the failure of the Generation of the Desert—and its consequences—did indeed become an example. Their fears became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
And yet, while that generation was not capable of entering the land, having been degraded by slavery, they were nevertheless seen as worthy of rescue. More importantly, they were the ones who received the Torah! They were the ones whose “na’aseh v’nishma” (We will do and we will hear) has echoed down through our history. Perhaps such words could only have been uttered by people who had experienced an aspect of God that we would prefer not to see, and thus knew what it was they were entering into and all its consequences.
And perhaps this is part of what their example was meant to show: that we can fail at a test—even fail spectacularly—and still be worthy of redemption. The Torah was not given to those who had the strength and trust to conquer the land. It was given to those who had been made to understand the consequences of failure and so could accept it with open eyes.
There is a thread running through all of our history, and while each Tisha b’Av finds us at a different place, they are not separate events. We believe that all Jews, past and future, were present at Sinai. So in a sense, all of us are of “The Generation of the Desert”. In our day, Tisha b’Av has a very personal and immediate meaning. Everything that happened during this terrible exile would not have happened without that first failure; it was the first catastrophe in a long defeat, of which the Shoah was the culmination.
The birthday of the Mashiah
And yet…These events are linked and have meaning. Not only have they allowed us to perform our task to the nations, they have shaped us as a people. The tests that we are facing now, and so far have managed to pass, are the same ones that faced us at each of those previous calamitous junctions. The test of making this Land our home, which we failed that first Tisha b’Av, we have now passed. The test of holding onto our faith against all odds and not being lured into imitation of the nations, which we failed in the time of the First Temple’s destruction, we have now passed. The test of maintaining national unity in the face of external threat, which we failed at the time of the Second Temple’s destruction, we have (so far!) passed… And the list goes on.
This doesn’t mean that we’ve safely reached the high ground; there’s still quite a way to go yet. But it does mean that we can look back on all this terrible history and say that it was not in vain. If we can learn enough from our history to avoid the same mistakes, then we are on the path of redemption.