The other day, a friend of mine whimsically asked why we bother to commemorate Tisha B’Av these days. “After all,” he opined, “that all happened 2,000 years ago. Does it really matter today? Is it still worth fasting for?” In today’s charged atmosphere where the “cancel culture” has taken a foothold, perhaps this is a relevant question to ask. Mobs are taking down statues in major cities. The heroes of American culture are now being turned into villains, and history is being rewritten by political activists. Yet, we Jews seem to dwell on our history, celebrating our victories on Chanukah and mourning our losses on Tisha B’Av, for example.
If we think about it, much of Jewish culture and tradition is, in fact, rooted in our past. We hearken back constantly in our prayers to exiting Egypt and starting out as a nation. We implore Hashem to return to the old days when the Temple still existed and the Davidic dynasty ruled over Israel. We recite the Passover Seder, teaching our children of events that took place over 3,000 years ago. We follow customs and traditions that go back for millennia, invoking the history of the Jewish people time and again. We promote Holocaust education and commemorate Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron. Why bother doing this? Why not just live in the present and forget the past?
We recently read Parshat Masei, where it reiterated the 42 stops the fledgling Jewish nation made across the desert on their way to the Promised Land. Most of these stops were peaceful and productive. At the same time, the Jewish people made mistakes along the way, such as worshiping the golden calf, believing the evil reports of the “meraglim” scouts and striving with Moshe regarding water and his leadership authority. We do not sweep that part of history under the rug. Instead we embrace it and learn lessons from it. This is how we approach our history.
The Jewish people, in fact, have had a long, eventful and rich history. We have lived everywhere on this planet and experienced every type of government rule ever known to humankind. Our travels, so to speak, should have given us the ability to judge current problems in the light of past experience. However, this ability is naturally contingent on our remembering and being cognizant of the events in our collective past.
Rabbi Berel Wein, the Jewish historian, reminds us that part of the benefit of reviewing past events and their locations is to enable us to learn from those experiences and not to foolishly repeat past errors and wrong decisions. The entire thrust of knowing Jewish history and understanding and appreciating our past is to guide our attitudes and behavior in the present and future and not to unnecessarily repeat past errors and wrongs. An individual or a nation that knows little or next to nothing of its past cannot realistically expect to make wise decisions in the present or immediate future.
Unfortunately, a large section of the Jewish people are ignorant regarding their history. This has led to a lack of appreciation of our unique culture and place in history. Imagine if Prince Charles of England knew nothing of his royal family history, married an ordinary woman, worked as a bartender, and lived a working-class life in Liverpool. Sure, he might get through life, but he would be denying himself the special lifestyle he was entitled to as an heir to the throne. We too, as Jews, are special children of God, entitled to many privileges and benefits. It would be a shame to go through life being ignorant of our unique status and history.
When it comes to Tisha B’Av, we are reminded of the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. The Talmud (Gittin 55b) relates that Yerushalayim was destroyed because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. There were two people, one named Kamtza and the other Bar Kamtza. A certain person who liked Kamtza but hated Bar Kamtza was celebrating a festive meal. He instructed his servant to bring Kamtza to join him but the servant, mistakenly, brought Bar Kamtza.
The host arrived, saw his enemy Bar Kamtza sitting there and furiously ordered him to leave. Bar Kamtza turned to his host and pleaded: “Let me remain and I’ll pay for whatever I’ll eat and drink.” But the host refused.
“I’ll pay for half of the entire affair, just let me remain,” Bar Kamtza implored. But the host still refused.
“I’ll pay for the entire affair, just let me remain,” he begged. The host steadfastly refused and ordered Bar Kamtza bodily removed.
Bar Kamtza decided that, since the rabbis were present and hadn’t defended him, they were also responsible for the humiliation he had suffered. He went and slandered his people to caesar, claiming that the Jews were rebelling against him. This was the beginning of the end. Ultimately, Rome sacked Jerusalem and the holy Temple.
So when we think about Tisha B’Av, it isn’t simply a day of fasting and discomfort. It is a day when we reflect upon how we treat our fellow man. Do we show disrespect because they are not religious and we are? Do they wear a different yarmulka than us or follow a different flavor of Judaism? In the end, when we think about the destruction of the Temple and many other historical events, there are important lessons to be learned and applied to our modern-day lives. Let’s not throw it all away in the name of progressive thinking. May Hashem bless us so that we learn these lessons from the past to live a more perfect life today.
Rabbi Dr. Avi Kuperberg is a forensic, clinical psychologist in private practice. He is president of the Chai Riders Motorcycle Club of NY/NJ. He leads the Summit Avenue Shabbos Gemara shiur and minyan in Fair Lawn, NJ, and is a member of the International Rabbinical Society. He can be reached at [email protected]