From Monday night until Tuesday night, Jews around the world will observe a day which is, incontrovertibly, the saddest day of the Jewish calendar. We will fast for the 25 hours from sunset to sunset, we will read Eikha (Lamentations) by candlelight, sitting on the floor. We will suspend all pleasurable activity – eating, bathing, wearing nice clothing. For one day we are mourners, although no one has died.
What do we mourn on Tisha b’Av (9th of Av)? According to the Mishna [Ta’anit 4:6], we mourn for five specific things: the incident with the Spies (Numbers 13) in which only two brought back a positive report of Eretz Yisrael (The Land of Israel), the destruction of the first Temple in 587 BCE by the Babylonians, the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE by the Romans, the defeat of Beitar in 132 CE and with it any hopes for Jewish resistance to Roman domination, and one year later in 133, Roman commander Turnus Rufus demolishing the site of the Temple and plowing the land beneath it.
Thus, these five things all happened on the same day of the Hebrew calendar – the 9th of the month of Av. Somewhat eerily, many other terrible things have befallen us on this same day. The First Crusade began on the 9th of Av, leading years later to the deaths of over one million Jews. In 1290 the Jews were expelled from England on the 9th of Av. In 1306 they were expelled from France on the same day. The expulsion from Spain in 1492, which displaced millions, was also believed to have happened on Tisha b’Av. Germany entered World War I on the 9th of Av in 1914. In 1941, final approval for the Final Solution was given to Himmler on the 9th of Av. In 1942, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was defeated on the 9th of Av and all of the surviving inhabitants shipped to their deaths in Treblinka.
Among all of this – all of these years during which Tisha b’Av was further scarred with bloodshed, homelessness, and slaughter – there’s one more event that our Sages believed will take place on the 9th of Av: the birth of the Messiah.
On the darkest day of the year, when things seem to be the worst that they could possibly be – that is when we expect that the Messiah will enter the world. Only when we are mired in misery and consumed by contemplation of all that has befallen us, only then does the spark enter the world which may grow and develop into the mashiach, the person who will be able to unite all of humanity in peace and love. It is not in a climax of love and joy that the mashiach enters the world – it is in the deepest depths of our darkest hour.
We can infer backward from this concept something of our own world. Rabbi Yehuda Loew of Prague (Maharal) tells us that, “the essential function of mashiach will consist in the fact that it is a perfect being who will unite all and perfect all so that this will truly be one world.” If that is the case, if the Messiah is one who will unite and perfect the world – how could they possibly be born from this world plagued in darkness, war, violence, and suffering?
According to Rabbi Loew, it is precisely because of the darkness that the Messiah is born into. He writes elsewhere: “…only in the breadth of nothingness can new things come into being. The Torah tells us this about the creation of the world. Before the creation, it says that the world was chaos and void…there was darkness, which is non-being. Thus we can see that it is impossible for any being to come into existence except after non-existence.” Strange language aside, Rabbi Loew is explaining for us part of why it is that we anticipate the Messiah’s birth to be on Tisha b’Av.
If mashiach is a manifestation of oneness, peace, and perfection – then it must come from division, war, and imperfection. Long before Hegel, Rabbi Loew believed that things were born from their opposites. This means that within our darkest days are embedded the brightest lights, and within our happiest moments there is a minute flash of deep sadness. One must pass away, but in doing so, it gives birth to the other. As Rabbi Loew writes, “Before the Messiah can become manifest, the weeding-out of being in the world must occur, for every new being is the ruin of the being which preceded it and only then – with the end of the old – can the new begin.”
The pessimist may read this as a verification of never being quite happy – that it is impossible to rejoice in our greatest happiness knowing that it is simultaneously giving birth to our future misery. However, the opposite is true as well. And for us – for those of us who are living in this world which appears to be defined by suffering – this message is one of hope. The further we plunge into suffering, the closer we come to actualizing the movement towards peace and unity that is embedded within it. Like the undulations of the sea or waves of sound, by the time we reach the apex of one, we have already begun descending. So too, on Tisha b’Av, when we find ourselves at the bottom of the curve which seems to have no peak whatsoever – we can take comfort that we have already begun ascending – that the spark that may one day be actualized into the promised Messiah may have already been born into our world – and that even while we stand in the deepest darkness, we can look for the one tiny pinprick of light which, as the darkness fades, will grow to overwhelm it – and eventually, to shine on all of us in an age of peace and unity.
Image courtesy of Flickr Commons.