Tisha b’Av is a cursed day. It was on the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av that the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple in Jerusalem and exiled the Jewish People from the Land of Israel. Megillat Eicha, the Book of Lamentations, describes with the utmost poetic sorrow the destruction that occurred on that fateful Ninth of Av two and a half millennia ago. And so it is that every year on Tisha b’Av we read in Eicha of the destruction, remember it, and mourn it.
But there’s one catch that makes Tisha b’Av not a bad dream, but a recurring nightmare: we kept on experiencing total calamity on that exact date for thousands of years afterwards. On that date in history, the 9th of the Jewish month of Av: the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem and exiled us from Israel for a second time; the Jewish people were exiled from England, France, and Germany, all in separate years; the Spanish Inquisition began; the Final Solution was formally approved by the Nazi Party; the Warsaw Ghetto began to be liquidated; and too many other eerily timed tragedies to count…
So Tisha b’Av is a holiday about adding to the heap whatever calamity Jews have most recently experienced. The profound insight of Eicha, Lamentations, and the rabbis of the Talmud, is to understand our calamities by focusing not our attackers or their moral status, but on our own moral failures.
The rabbis of the Talmud teach us that the calamity of the destruction of the Second Temple happened to us because of Jewish transgressions, and the failure of Jews to address our own transgressions within our own communities. It is our own misdeeds or complicity in them, our own passive silence, and the silence of our own leaders that is responsible for our undoing (see Masechet Gittin 56b- 58a for the story of the destruction of the Second Temple. English text here).
At IfNotNow NYC’s Tisha b’Av evening service, we said maariv (the traditional evening prayer), chanted the Book of Lamentations, and read contemporary lamentations – poems and dialogues we had written about the current destruction in Israel and Palestine. Then, the over 250 Jews in attendance read off in unison the names of the 177 Israelis and Palestinians that had perished just in the few days immediately prior to Tisha b’Av. We said kaddish. We lit yahrtzeit candles. We cried.
Our service was an act of bewailing not only the heap of Jewish calamities of years past, but also the calamity the Jewish People is creating in Israel and Palestine right now. IfNotNow has sprung up in at least ten U.S. cities, uniting Jews to say loudly to the multitude of Jewish leaders in America, Israel, and worldwide who are perpetuating the flames of war and the chokehold of the occupation:
Your actions do not reflect our values. You do not represent us. The violence is mostly – albeit not exclusively – within our power to stop.
IfNotNow aims to articulate, moreover, three central imperatives:
The war in Gaza must end.
The occupation of Palestine must end.
A world in which Palestiniansand Jewsenjoy freedom and dignity must begin.
If Not Now, When?