It is taught in the Talmud (Taanit 26b): When the month of Av begins, we reduce our rejoicing.

Rosh Chodesh Av begins the Nine Days leading up to the fast of Tisha B’av. During this period, there are certain pleasures that the Rabbis decreed that we refrain from. Traditionally, this includes refraining from shaving, cutting our hair, washing our clothes (having clean clothes for the sake of hygiene or professionalism is permitted), eating meat, or drinking wine. As was true starting from the 17th of Tammuz, weddings and other celebrations are discouraged, and many people do not go to live musical concerts.

Yetziat mitzrayim, the Exodus, marks the birth of the Jewish people. Churban habayit, the destruction of the Temple, marks the end of the Jewish people as a nation tied to its land. Both are ends of the old way of life, and the beginning of something new. The end of what was once normal engendered crisis and uncertainty, and the need for a new source of meaning.

Churban habyait, the destruction of the Temple, and yetziat mitzrayim, release from slavery in Egypt, are both events which are commemorated in specific holidays as well as throughout the Jewish year. The Exodus, most deeply expounded upon and celebrated on Pesach, is remembered twice daily in the “Ga’al Yisrael” blessing that leads into the Amidah prayer. It is mentioned at kiddush on Friday night: zecher litzi’at mitzrayim (remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt). Shirat Hayam, the Song of the Sea, is read every morning before the prayer services.

Churban habayit, the destruction of the Temple, remembered on Tisha B’av, is remembered in every Musaf prayer, especially on the holidays. Those who read Seder Korbanot, a series of Torah texts relating the different sacrifices, also make constant reference to the destruction. And at a Jewish wedding, the groom breaks a glass as a reminder of the loss of the Temple.

Even as slaves, the Israelites in Egypt knew what to expect. They even yearned for it when they wandered in the wilderness! They complained that they missed the meat and the stews and the melons of Egypt, and that they had nothing but manna to eat. “Why did you take us out of Egypt to kill us in the desert?” Out of this sense of rootlessness and loss of identity, they fell into idolatry, worshipping the Golden Calf and allowing themselves to be seduced into worshipping Ba’al Pe’or. But yetziat mitzrayim also created the opportunity for the deepest kind of trust in the Ultimate, as demonstrated by Nachshon ben Aminadav who walked into the Red Sea up to his head before it split; by Yehoshua and Calev who knew that they could defeat the Canaanite nations and settle the land.

There is no need to explain how the Temple’s destruction and the Jewish people’s forcible expulsion from their land was a deep crisis. What it led to was the development of the Rabbinic tradition and the diaspora communities. It led to a unique system of spirituality that serves God through the intellectual rigor of Talmud study, engenders human concern for all humans through commitment to our own community, and challenges us to be concerned for others when we ourselves are threatened or persecuted precisely because we know what it is like.

The Jewish people have experienced collective birth, death, and rebirth multiple times throughout our history. As we approach the fast of Tisha B’av, we should keep in mind all that such crisis entails; both the pain associated with loss, and the potential for a spiritual leap ahead in its wake.

Shabbat Shalom!

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