Do you know how, after going to a funeral, life seems that much sweeter? We often step away and resume our daily lives with renewed vigor and a focus on what really matters. In the back of our minds, we are often thinking about our own funerals, and what we will leave behind when we have gone. Did we fulfill our potential? Did we leave the world better for our having lived in it?
We Jews have a national day of mourning. We mourn the loss of our temple, 2000 years ago – and a great many other tragedies besides. But the purpose is not merely to wallow, but, as with a national funeral, to emerge from mourning reinvigorated, ready to make more of our lives.
The tragedies of the Ninth of Av have a common thread: they were all avoidable. Unlike death (which is truly inevitable), Jews do not believe that the temples needed to be destroyed, or that the Holocaust was something G-d wanted to happen. Nor do we believe that some external force or demon is the reason for our suffering. Instead ultimately, we lay the blame on ourselves.
- The first major tragedy was that of those who went ahead of the Children of Israel to “spy out the land”. They came back reporting that the land was, indeed good – but that there was no hope of conquering it.
- The second major tragedy was the destruction of the First Temple. We ascribe its loss to widespread idol worship.
- And the third major tragedy was the destruction of the Second Temple. Many different explanations are given for it, but a dominant theme is that Jews had ceased being kind to one another.
I would argue that each of these tragedies has a single common cause: cowardice.
The Jews in the wilderness lacked the courage of their convictions. We did not believe that we were capable of victory. As any marine will tell you, if you allow doubt to creep in, then you have lost. Convictions matter.
The First Temple was destroyed because of Idol Worship – which seems very foreign to us today. But it is not foreign at all. People worship idols when they find it difficult to accept that G-d has no physical manifestation. The sun and the sea and the storm are here and immensely powerful. We can wrap it all together and call it “The Environment.” And so people engage in all kinds of meaningless and empty rituals in order to appease Gaia, to mitigate what liberals assume is man’s unrelenting war on The Planet. Some of these rituals are downright evil: Save the climate through birth control, and worse.
“Support for family planning is the most effective way to check population growth and relieve pressure on the planet’s environment accordingly.” Or, in a nutshell, “Save the Earth, Don’t Give Birth.” It is, in fact, Environmentalism taken to its logical conclusion
Idol worship is alive and well, and contaminates the world around us. It celebrates a morally ambivalent natural world, and condemns mankind not as nature’s salvation but instead as an affliction. And idol worship stems from cowardice, an inherent fear of and respect for the physical world, instead of the frightening (and scientifically unsupportable) idea that G-d cannot be touched in this world except through the human soul.
Which leads us to the destruction of the Second Temple. The Talmud commonly ascribes its loss to what translates as “causeless hatred.” People were unkind to each other, finding and maximizing divisions instead of unity.
Unkindness, too, comes from cowardice. When we block other people out, either through name calling or simply excluding them from being “like us”, we are acting through our insecurity. It takes courage to love people who make different choices than we do. It is difficult to accept that each person has their own arc, and that no two people are supposed to be the same. Instead, we too-easily separate into forms of tribalism, if not by bloodlines then by politics or culture or religion. It is insecurity, cowardice, that causes the gaps between people.
The Ninth of Av is a time to connect with our history, to understand what has gone so tragically wrong in our past, and what we can do to make the future brighter. Ideally, we take these lessons and, as we leave the funeral home and blink in the sunlight, we are focused on how best to improve and grow ourselves and the world around us. We are here to build and grow and soar, without fear that our goals might falter, without the fear that comes with accepting that there is only One G-d and that He is not found in the forces of nature, and without ever forgetting that each person contains a divine spark, and is to be accorded love and respect on that basis alone.
Each life contains a wealth of opportunities: Do not be afraid!