Rabbi Jonathan Sacks – A message for Tisha B’Av during the coronavirus pandemic
Here is a short message as we head towards Tisha B’Av – which begins this evening – and will be marked in strange and difficult circumstances because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Eichah yashva vadad, ha’ir rabati am. How solitary lies the city that was once so full of people! (Eichah 1:1)
Those opening words of Megillat Eichah, that picture of Jerusalem, that dominates our understanding of Tisha B’Av, has in a strange way this year, the year of the coronavirus pandemic been the dominant image of all the great cities of the world during the period of lockdown. That’s how the Champs-Élysées was. How the Piazza San Marco in Venice was. How Trafalgar Square was. How Times Square in New York was. It was ha’ir yashva vadad, the centre of the city was empty as if somehow or other the whole world had become Jerusalem and every day was Tisha B’Av.
And therefore it seems to me appropriate that at this time in this year of all years, it is appropriate to try and find strength within Tisha B’Av itself, strength for our world and our time. And we do so in the form of a phenomenon that is paradoxical in the extreme and absolutely, frankly extraordinary. Namely that the great prophets of doom were also the supreme prophets of hope. You take Isaiah, whose words we say on Shabbat Chazon, immediately prior to Tisha B’Av, the devastating critique he has of Jerusalem, and says words that are unparalleled anywhere else not only in Judaism but I guess in any religion in the world. Ufarishchem kapeichem a-alim einai mikem, as you spread your hands out toward Me (in prayer) I will close My eyes, says God, ki-tarbu tefillah eineni shomaya the more you pray the less I will listen (Isaiah 1:15).
And Isaiah seems to seal the fate of the city when he says in the same passage (Isaiah 1:21) Eichah haytah lezonah kiryah ne’emanah! How has the faithful city become a harlot, a prostitute, lamenting that it has completely abandoned its values.
Yet in the very next chapter, Isaiah delivers some of the most famous words of hope, of vision, of peace the world has ever known. Words engraved opposite the United Nations building in New York, that many nations will come and say ‘let us ascend the mountain of the Lord”… and the world will come… because Ki Mitzion Teitse Torah udvar Hashem Yerushalayim, the word of Torah will go forth from Zion and the word of God from Jerusalem… and they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation anymore, and they will no longer learn for war (Isaiah 2:3-4). That is chapter two of Isaiah. Chapter one, the glue, Chapter two, the hope, until in Chapter 11 he delivers the greatest vision of all when he talks about the animals living together in peace, and he says they will neither harm nor destroy in all of My holy mountain because the world will be as full of knowledge of the Lord as waters cover the seabed. (Isaiah 11:9).
Isaiah, of all the prophets in the Bible, is the poet laureate of hope. So somehow the man who announced the doom of the city also announced the new age that would come that would be greater in its blessings than the destruction.
Likewise Jeremiah… Jeremiah gives us two of the three hafdarot leading up to Tisha B’Av, and of all the prophets he was the one who most vividly foresaw what was going to happen and of course in chapter three of Eichah he says “Ani hagever” (Eichah 3:1). I actually saw it, I didn’t just foresee it the way other people did, I actually lived through it. And Jeremiah was known, and indeed in the English dictionary you’ll see a ‘jeremiad’ is a prophecy of doom. It was Jeremiah who, in Chapter 31 of the book that bears his name, says in the name of God, ka’asher shakad’ti aleihem lintosh v’lintotz, v’lahaross u’l’ha’avid… just as I threw myself into destruction says God, kein eshkod aleihem livnot v’lintoah ne’um Hashem (Jeremiah 31:28), I will take that same energy and use it to build and to plant. And of course Jeremiah says something else in Chapter 31 that nobody else says in all of Tanach, which is Thus says the Lord who gives the sun to give light by day and the moon and the stars by night, im yamooshoo hachukim ha’eleh milifanai ne’um Hashem (Jeremiah 31:6), only if these things cease to be says God, will the children of Israel cease to be. Jeremiah is the person who says the Jewish people will be the eternal people.
Now why is it that these supreme prophets of doom became supreme prophets of hope? Well, because they relied on God’s promise, already said in parshat Bechukotai that af gam zot beyotam be’ertz oyveihem, even when they are in the land of their enemies, lo mastim v’lo ga’altim l’chalotam (Leviticus 26:44), says God, I will not so despise them as to destroy them, thus invalidating my covenant with them. I will keep my promise. I will never let them be destroyed. They had God’s word and that gave them hope. And that hope led Zechariah, prophet of the Second Temple, to say that one day the four fasts of the Jewish calendar – Shivah Asar B’Tammuz and Tisha B’Av and Tzom Gedaliah and Asara b’Tevet – will one day become leveit Yehudah lesasson u’le’simcha (Zechariah 8:19), those fasts will become festivals.
So here you have a unique phenomenon. Jews gave to the world this idea of time as a narrative of hope which meant that what is lost can be regained, what is destroyed can be rebuilt, what disappears may one day return. And the reason is because the prophets were able to see beyond the horizon of history and where everyone else saw doom, they saw the hope that lay just over that horizon, and they understood that there was a route from here to there. Now I think that really is remarkable vision.
Let me share with you a moment that, I think, was almost the most mystical moment of my entire life. It happened in the late 1960s. I had gone for the first time to see Jerusalem reunited after the Six Day War, and I was sitting on Har Hatzofim, on Mount Scopus, which of course had been from day one (but not really used since 1949) the site of the Hebrew University. And I was standing at the edge of Har Hatzofim, looking down on the Temple Mount and I suddenly realised that was the spot on which Rabbi Akiva stood in the famous story at the end of Mishna of Makkot when he and his colleagues stood and looked at the Temple in ruins and they wept and he refused to weep.
And I thought 2000 years ago, just where I am standing, Rabbi Akiva stood and I wanted to say Rabbi Akiva, please tell me, if you had known it was going to take that long, almost 2000 years, would you still have believed? And at that moment I realised that of course he would. Because that is what it is to be a Jew. You never let go of hope. Because we are the people who gave the concept of hope to the world. And we kept faith and we never gave up and we honestly observed for 26 centuries without a single pause, the line of Psalm 137, Im Eshkacheich Yerushalayim tishkach yemini, I will never forget you O Jerusalem. And because we never gave up hope we finally came back to Jerusalem. And we were the people, almost 2000 years after Rabbi Akiva, who lived to see it.
Hope rebuilds the ruins of Jerusalem. The Jewish people kept hope alive and hope kept the Jewish people alive.
That I think is the message of Tisha B’Av. And it’s the message the world needs right now. Because we need to know that what can be lost can be regained. And what has been ruined can be rebuilt. We have a great deal that has been lost or ruined in our world – economically, politically, educationally and above all socially. And we have to show what it is never to give up hope – that we can rebuild what has been ruined.
The early Zionists had a lovely phrase: Livnot U’Lehibanot. To build and to be built. The more you build the stronger you become – the more you yourself are built. And that is what our challenge is. The whole world has seen – okay the Temple has not been rebuilt – but the whole world has seen Jerusalem today. What it is to take a city that was ha’aveilah, v’hachareiva, v’habezuya, v’hashomeyma – that was ruined and desolate – and turn it back into kelilat yofi, one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
The Jewish people are the people who try and show the world what it is to build. Let each of us, in our way, try and help mend a broken society and do so the right way – be’ahavat chinam – just by love of other people and love of the work. The more we build, the more we will be built. And let us be known as the people that doesn’t destroy. We are the people that build.