Tisha B’Av is the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. There’s a long list of terrible things that have happened to the Jewish people over the centuries on this very day or in the three weeks that precede it each year. It’s sort of like your single worst-luck day of the year, happening year after year for centuries. It gets to the point that if something bad doesn’t happen, you still spend the day worrying what will happen while still finding time to mourn the past.
In addition to the 25 hours of fasting that takes place, traditionally, you don’t do dangerous things. Why tempt fate, right? So you don’t go swimming, you don’t fly if you can avoid it. You don’t take long trips, by car, by bus, by anything. You don’t sign contracts and close business deals. In short, you just sort of hang your head and pray for tomorrow to come.
Of course, on a spiritual level, we also read the Book of Lamentations (Eicha) and remember that in many ways, so many bad things have happened because we turned away from our tradition and these days are the price we have paid.
In the Jewish religion, there are 613 commandments that guide our daily lives as individuals and as a community and a nation. Of all of these, there are only three that are deemed more important than life itself. Three commandments that you do not break, ever, for any reason. One, for example, is that we cannot live by murdering someone else. If someone were to attack you as an individual, and say, “Kill that person over there and you will live,” you have the right to attack and even kill the person that is threatening you. But, you do not have the right to kill another person who is innocently standing there. In the clearest terms, you cannot say that your blood is “redder” or your life more worthy of living.
On the other hand, we have the laws of the Sabbath – break them if someone’s life is in danger and you can save them. We have the laws of keeping kosher – put them aside as well. All but these three laws fall away when human life is at risk. For those serving in the army, understanding this and accepting this is very important and very real.
When the Yom Kippur war started, one of the first things the rabbis in the army did was to tell the soldiers to break their fast. In a weakened condition, they would not have been able to defend their country. For most people, touching a gun is not permitted on the Sabbath, just as it is not permitted to touch many things that have nothing to do with the holiness of the day. Pens. computers, microwaves, cars – these are not part of the Sabbath and so, for this period, we do not use or touch these items.
If the gun is something of a hobby, it is not allowed on the Sabbath. Of course, if you need that gun to protect, as soldiers do, it is allowed. It is all based on understanding the purposes of the laws and how they are meant to be applied.
When Elie was patrolling the northern border, and now at the checkpoint, there are laws which he can break, in order to properly serve and protect. He has learned what these laws are, when they can be put aside and when they must be followed.
It is strange for me, having raised Elie to honor these laws, to now sit by and know that Elie is driving on the Sabbath or using equipment that is not allowed. In each case, Elie only does what is necessary and no more. He will go in a vehicle to get to the checkpoint, but certainly once he returns to base, he won’t even turn on a light or use electricity in any way, as is our custom. He might be driven to a checkpoint, but once back on base, he would never get in a car to go shopping or visiting.
Tisha B’Av is observed in a number of ways: we don’t wear leather shoes, a sign of comfort and perhaps wealth in many cultures. We put these aside on this day. But Elie will wear his combat boots, made of leather. They protect him and are a necessary part of the uniform he wears. We don’t eat or drink for the entire 25 hour period from sundown tonight until sundown tomorrow night. We don’t listen to music or greet friends with joy. In short, we mourn what we have lost in the past that has brought us to this painful day.
Almost not wanting an answer, I asked Elie if he would be able to fast on Tisha B’Av. He said that he would and I didn’t ask further. He will be standing at a checkpoint, commanding a group of other soldiers (with another commander there) for two shifts during the next 25 hour period. He must be alert and attentive. I’m not sure whether in the end he will be able to really keep this fast, or even if he should. All it takes is one moment for such bad things to happen.
There is a point when, as the mother of a soldier, you look to the Heavens and put all things in perspective; when you appeal to a Higher Force and say, God, please guard my son in all things and in all ways, this day and all days. This is what I do this day.
There is little comfort to be had in Israel on the 9th of Av. We save this finding comfort for the days ahead. The concept can best be summed up by saying that sometimes, you can’t climb the highest mountain without first crossing the deepest valley. Israel is in the valley at this moment. In the distance, we see the mountain and we know we will climb it. But that is for another day. Tonight and tomorrow, we will not find comfort.
In the next month, we will celebrate two weddings and a bar mitzvah with dear friends in the neighborhood and yet, at this moment, it is hard to imagine being happy again, hard to believe we will come out of the valley of mourning and climb the mountains of Jerusalem in all their beauty. But, to follow the analogy further, for perhaps the first time, I notice something different about the valley that I never noticed in the past.
This time, when Elie isn’t with us, I am aware of where he is and who he is with. As we mourn, our sons stand guard. They walk with us through the depths of our despair. But there is a difference. We lower our heads in pain, but they do not. We bend our backs as a sign of our defeat, but they stand and walk proudly and so tall. It is an interesting feeling, to realize that we have these guards beside us.
Tisha B’Av is the day on which – twice – Israel was sent into exile, our Holy Temples destroyed by invaders. Tomorrow, as we mourn, we have set guards at our borders and they will walk beside us and help see us through the valley. It is the ultimate partnership, the ultimate blending of faith, of service, of prayer.
May we all be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem and may we all know no more sorrow and may we be honored to celebrate each of the upcoming weddings and bar mitzvah in the rebuilt, eternal capital of Israel, Jerusalem.