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Points to Ponder this Tisha B’Av

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24 Jul 2020
Points to Ponder this Tisha B’Av

Beginning next Wednesday evening (29 July), the Jewish world will mark Tisha B’Av, an annual day of mourning and fasting to lament the uncanny series of tragedies which have befallen their people on this singular date in history. Regarded as the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, Tisha B’Av (“Ninth of Av”) primarily recalls the destructions of the two Temples in Jerusalem. But this day also witnessed a long litany of other major Jewish calamities which should give us all pause for much thought and reflection even amid our own current Corona plague.

According to the Talmud, this day of mourning is warranted due to five specific disasters in Jewish history which all occurred on the Ninth of Av.

1) The bad report of the ten spies sent by Moses to search out the Land of Canaan.
2) The destruction of Solomon’s Temple by Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC.
3) The destruction of Herod’s Temple by the Roman general Titus in 70 AD.
4) The Roman crushing of the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 AD.
5) The Roman plowing of the Temple remains still in Jerusalem that same year.

Strangely, a number of other catastrophes in Jewish history also have taken place on the Ninth of Av. This includes the launch of the First Crusade (1096), which left thousands of Jews dead in its path; the Expulsion from England (1290); the Expulsion from France (1306); the Expulsion from Spain (1492); and the initial Nazi approval of the “Final Solution” (1941), just to name a few.

Focusing on the Talmudic list, there are important lessons to be drawn from them in relation to where we are today.

The Bad Report of the Ten Spies
Many Jews share the sense that all these calamities have occurred on this specific day because of the original sin of the negative reports brought back by ten of the twelve tribal leaders sent by Moses to spy out the Land of Canaan (Numbers 13 & 14). It was indeed a serious incident. They confirmed that the Land “truly flows with milk and honey,” but also voiced fears over the strength of its inhabitants, their fortified cities, and especially the giants in their midst, which made them appear as “grasshoppers.”

Their doubts about God’s ability to help them overcome these obstacles sorely displeased Him, especially after they had just seen His might so thoroughly displayed against the Egyptians. In fact, the Lord took their bad reports as a “rejection” of Himself (Numbers 14:11). It came down to a matter of simply lacking faith in God’s ability to keep His promise to deliver the Land of Canaan into their hands.

Now Moses interceded and spared the Israelite people from destruction, but there still was a price to pay for their unbelief – that of wandering in the Wilderness for forty years until a new generation arose which was ready to possess the Land.

This Tish B’Av, Israeli leaders are pondering the “annexation” question and looking at all the obstacles to possessing the Land of Israel this time around. They see a mass of Palestinian people and worry about the demographic balance between Jews and Arabs from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, and whether Israel can remain a Jewish and democratic state. They see other ‘giants,’ such as Hizbullah rockets, Iranian nuclear ambitions, and the anti-Israel alignment in the United Nations.

But if Israelis are able to see with the eyes of faith, like Joshua and Caleb, they would realize God already delivered the entire Land into their possession some 50 years ago. True, there is still another hostile people in parts of the Land, but with patience and trust in God all these obstacles can surely be overcome.

Right now, the Trump peace plan offers them a chance to expand Israeli sovereignty to 30% of Judea/Samaria and the Jordan Valley. But as Jason Greenblatt, one of the architects of the Trump plan, confirmed this week, extending Israeli sovereignty under the plan “comes with a commitment to set aside a certain area of land for the eventual potential Palestinian state.” As vague as that may sound, it means annexing settlements would lock Israel into the real possibility of having to accept a Palestinian state on the remaining 70% of the West Bank.

It is better for Israelis to wait and trust God, rather than enter a process which would require them to cede forever part of their God-given land inheritance. To do so is like the sin of the twelve spies, for you are saying that God is not able to keep His promise to deliver the entire Land of Canaan to you in rest and peace.

The Destructions of the Temples and Jewish Exiles
The destructions of the First and Second Temples were both very painful for the Jewish people – they still remember it even in moments of great joy like weddings. And the fact that both destructions occurred on the same date is doubly ominous. God certainly works on a precise timeclock. Further, both destructions also were accompanied by bitter Jewish exiles from the Land of Israel.

The second destruction and exile at the hands of the Romans came in two phases. In the first stage, the Jewish people were deeply divided over whether to fight to the last man or surrender to the Romans and become their slaves. The Jews trapped in the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD were actually fighting each other inside the walled city over this very issue, and it hastened the Roman victory. Then in the second stage a few decades later, the people followed a false messiah who led them to defeat and dispersion.

But God promised well beforehand that He would not leave the Jewish people scattered among the nations forever. Rather, He vowed to bring them back and “assuredly plant them in this land, with all My heart and with all My soul.” (Jeremiah 32:41)

This Tish B’Av, more than 45% of the Jewish people are now gathered back in the Land of Israel. That means we are almost near an historic milestone of more than half the Jewish people living back in their ancient homeland for the first time in actually 2700 years – since the Babylonian exile. But we have been hovering around these same percentages for the past few years, as the number of Jews moving to Israel has been about the same as the number of Israelis moving abroad.

Ironically, the Coronavirus crisis may be the thing which tips the scale and pushes us past the 50% mark. All indicators point to a sharp rise in interest and applications among Diaspora Jews to make Aliyah, due in large part to the resurgence of antisemitism worldwide. Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog recently said he expects as many as 250,000 Jews to come home to Israel over the next three to five years. Together with the increased numbers of Israeli citizens returning from foreign lands, it may be the Corona pandemic which helps accelerate the formal end of the long Jewish exile.

This brings up one more point to ponder this Tisha B’Av. When the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, the Jewish Sanhedrin met in Yavneh and took a momentous decision to refocus Jewish religious life around the synagogue system. This fateful ruling held that as long as more than half the Jews were exiled from the Land of Israel, they were no longer obligated to keep the commands of the Mosaic law concerning Temple worship. But if half the Jewish people are soon regathered back in the Land, will Yavneh have to be re-visited? And will it mean they are obligated to rebuild the House of the Lord in Jerusalem?

The Jewish people have come so far in recent times, arising out of innumerable tragedies and centuries of exile to return to the Land of Israel and rebuild their nation here. The remaining obstacles are not so steep that they, too, cannot be overcome, and a glorious future lies ahead for the nation and people of Israel. Let us be praying for them this Tish B’Av, as they ponder the events which befell them on this day in Jewish history.


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