The True Meaning of Tish'ah BeAv by Tani Greengart


When listening to Megillat Eichah in shul on Tish’ah BeAv, the ending used to bother me. Yirmiyahu ends his book with a very depressing line, “Ki Im Me’os Me’astanu, Katzafta Aleinu Ad Me’od,” “You have utterly rejected us, [God,] raged against us very much” (Eichah 5:22). Yet, when we read the Megillah in shul, we repeat the penultimate line: “Hashiveinu Hashem Eilecha VeNashuvah, Chadeish Yameinu KiKedem,” “Bring us back to You, God, and we will return; renew our days as before” (Eichah 5:21). This line is much less sad than the one that succeeds it, much more hopeful.

Why do we repeat the second-to-last line? Reading the saddest book of Tanach, on the saddest day of the year, are we unable to tolerate a sad ending? When we repeat the second-to-last line of Megillat Kohelet on Sukkot to give the book a more hopeful ending, that makes sense; Kohelet is a depressing book that doesn’t jive with the jubilant spirit of the Harvest Festival, Sukkot. But Eichah on Tish'ah BeAv? We just read about how mothers cooked and ate their own children! Why do we need to sugarcoat the ending?

And this theme repeats itself throughout Tish'ah BeAv. The morning Torah reading (Devarim 4:25-40) begins by telling us how we will be exiled from Israel, but it ends with how God will bring us back. In the morning Haftarah (Yirmiyahu 8:13-9:23), Yirmiyahu heartrendingly mourns the destruction of the first Beit HaMikdash and the subsequent death and exile — until the last two lines, when God tells us what to do to earn back His desire. The Tefillah of Nacheim is added to Shemoneh Esrei only on Tish’ah BeAv, so you’d think it would accurately reflect the spirit of the day, and while it begins by lamenting the destruction of Yerushalayim, it finishes by saying that God will rebuild it again! Why do we do this! Isn’t this day supposed to be sad?!

Perhaps we can answer this question with a parallel from literature. A book that ends with a purely blissful happily-ever-after scene feels sappy and unrealistic. A book that ends with the protagonist becoming evil or dying is too depressing to teach a lesson. But the best ending (in my opinion) is the kind in which everything is imperfect, but the protagonist learns a valuable lesson that will enable him or her to live a meaningful life. In an ending like this, there is hope.

Tish'ah BeAv is not a completely sad ending. Yes, we lament the destruction of the Batei HaMikdash. Yes, we grieve for all the Jews who were killed in the conquests of the Babylonians and Romans, and all the crusades and pogroms before and since. Yes, we mourn the exile into which the Jews were forced, an exile that splintered our national identity. But all hope is not lost. We are still around, and there is a vital lesson that we can still learn; we can understand the single flaw that caused all these things to occur in the first place. If we can fix that, we will have fulfilled the true purpose of Tish'ah BeAv and returned to acting the way God wants us to act. Our takeaway from Tish'ah BeAv should not just be that the Jews were exiled and suffered atrocities. It should be that if we repair our fatal flaw, we can stem the flow of destruction. Hashiveinu Hashem Eilecha VeNashuva. We can right the wrong.

This is not a message for the Jews of 2500 years ago. It is a message for everyone, today.

Tish'ah BeAv is a day for Teshuva.

This is all well and good, but it is rather difficult to repent when you don’t know for what you are repenting. What is the fatal flaw that caused the destruction of the Batei HaMikdash?

The Gemara (Yoma 9b) tells us that that flaw was Sin’at Chinam, baseless hatred. Now, I don’t know about you, but I try not to go around hating on people for no reason. If baseless hatred is our fatal flaw, all we need to do is purge YouTube of comment-section trolls and we can usher in Messiah, right?

Not exactly (although purging YouTube of comment-section trolls would not be an altogether bad idea). What is true Sin’at Chinam?

There is a famous teaching of the Gemara (Shevu’ot 39b), “Col Yisrael Areivim Zeh BaZeh,” colloquially translated in a positive way, as “Jews have each other’s backs.” However, the context of that phrase in the Gemara is not positive. The Gemara asks a question: how is it fair that Jews can be punished for the sins of other Jews? And the answer is Col Yisrael Areivim Zeh BaZeh. Jews have each other’s backs to the degree that one group of Jews can be punished for the sins of another group, even if the first group did nothing wrong.

To help explain this concept, let us see an interesting Mashal found in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Nedarim 30b) about the futility of taking revenge on another Jew. If a person is cutting meat and accidentally stabs his hand with the knife, would the wounded hand then grab the knife and stab the hand that cut it in revenge? No! That would be ridiculous — both hands belong to a single cohesive unit, a human being, and a fight between the hands would only cause the human more pain. This is what Col Yisrael Areivim Zeh BaZeh truly means. We Jews are not only one religion, not only one nation, not only one people — we are as interconnected as a single person, and any infighting between individuals harms the entire Jewish body

Sin’at Chinam happens when one individual elevates himself over another. We need to realize that not only is this wrong, not only is it sinful, it is nonsensical, because we are not separate entities at all. Col Yisrael Areivim Zeh BaZeh means that all members of the Jewish world are a singular entity, united in our common purpose of serving God. This is what Tish’ah BeAv teaches us. Our destruction-filled past pounds home the point that to hurt another Jew is to hurt yourself. But Col Yisrael Areivim Zeh BaZeh works both ways. By helping another Jew, you are helping yourself, for we are one.[4]

So be a little kinder than you have to, and maybe we can right the wrongs of the past.

[4] A big thank-you to Rabbi Daniel Fridman for teaching me the meaning of Sin’at Chinam, as is related here.

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