Talmud Taanis records that Tisha B’Av (the Ninth of the month of Av) is set aside for punishments. When the spies returned from their self-elected, 40-day tour of the land, it was on Tisha B’Av that they returned with their evil report, and this became the inceptional event that forecasted tragedies for many generations:
“And the people cried on that night”. (Num. 14) “God said to them, ‘You cry a cry for naught, I will establish a cry for generations’.” (Taanis 29a)
We must understand God’s severe response, as well as the cause: the Jews’ cry. On that first Tisha B’Av, the Jews feared the worst at the riot incited by the 10 evil spies, agreeing with the spies they could not conquer the inhabitants, and would suffer definite defeat. Before entering the land promised to Abraham, the people wrongfully asked to spy it out. But God had already told them they would succeed in vanquishing all opposition: yet they desired a reconnaissance mission. They questioned God’s word. The spies returned from Israel (Canaan) and felt those giants currently in Israel were invincible. The spies denied God’s promise of military success. The Jews were frightened that these spies – leaders of the Jews – were frightened themselves. The Jews followed their lead, and were also terrified. They cried out of fear, while also denying God’s promise. But what was different about “this” Jewish rebellion against God on the Ninth of Av, that God responded “You cry a cry for naught, I will establish a cry for generations”? Had not the Jews rebelled prior? What aspect of this specific rebellion warranted God’s severe response for many generations to come? Is there any clue in God’s words?
This Talmudic portion also cites a dispute as the whether Tisha B’Av is the appropriate day to commemorate the tragedies, which occurred. Besides the 40-year decree to remain in the desert, on the Ninth of Av, both Temples were destroyed, Turnus Rufus plowed the City, and tens of thousands were killed in the great city of Betar. Rabbi Yochanan stated that he would have instituted the “tenth” of Av in place of the Ninth. His reasoning is based on the fact that the majority of the Temple’s burning was on the tenth. But the Rabbis disagreed, stating that the initiation of the punishment, which was on the Ninth, outweighs the majority of the burning on the tenth. What is the point of contention? Such an argument must be rooted in a difference of theories, not simple facts.
We also learn that the mourning period commences with the beginning of the month of Av. Why must this be so? We do not have such a law concerning the 17th of Tammuz, or regarding Taanis Esther.
To answer our questions, we must ask one more: Why does one “cry for naught”? They do so based on misplaced values. Crying for nothing means that one values something other than what is truly dictated by reality. The Jews had no reason to cry, since God promised them victory. Therefore, the Jews did not accept God as the “ultimate reality”. What is God’s response? Tisha B’Av…for many generations.
A day, on which God repeatedly punishes, can no longer be viewed as coincidence…it must be that God is orchestrating events, and aligning all our deserving punishments to fall out on the same day. Had no other tragedies taken place on Tisha B’Av, God’s intended significance would not be realized. God’s plan was to address the Jews’ misconception of what is evil. Only through repeated tragedies on the same day, will man concede that God is causing these tragedies, not nature, and not man. Through this realization, we can then identify those actions that find no favor before God. We can repent. God is underlining for us, what He considers tragic. He is changing our worldview.
On the original Tisha B’Av, the Jews cried for no reason. They should have accepted God’s word as more influential than their enemies’ might. God was less of a reality to them. But with a repetition of calamities on this day, we are forced to adopt God’s view of what we must consider a tragedy. For this miraculous coinciding of repeated punishments identifies all of those tragedies as “God’s will”. This imparts to us the undeniable lesson regarding that which God deplores. One or two tragedies might be viewed as coincidence, and the lesson would be lost. Since the first Jews had a misplaced notion of what tragedy is, their warped view demanded God’s correction: “You cry a cry for naught, I will establish a cry for generations.” So the “repetitive” aspect of tragedies on Tisha B’Av teaches that these tragedies are due to God. It also teaches in what exact areas we have sinned, underlining what God considers to be worthy of a cry. In other cases, the Jews may have had grounds for their rebellion, such as their need for food or water. In those cases, it was their “manner” of request that was corrupt, not the “object” of their request. And at the Red Sea, the Jews were not punished for crying upon seeing Egypt race after them to kill them. Their cry was not punishable. But on Tisha B’Av, the Jews already had God’s word, unlike other events, so their rebellion was “for naught”.
The Jews prioritized other considerations over God. The tragedies throughout time are to correct our skewed definition of what is evil, and realign ourselves to value only that defined by God. God gave us real calamites to cry over during this time, thereby highlighting what is worthy of a cry. Of course we caused the calamities, but the timing of God’s punishments was God’s work. He is the only one who defines what is worthy to cry about. Therefore, due to our continued, willfully committed sins, God delayed their punishments until Tisha B’Av, so as to focus us on; 1) what is worthy to cry about, and 2) that the punishments are undeniably due to God, as they fall out on the same date throughout time.
To show that we truly believe God’s lesson, that God decreed this “season” for tragedies, we express our belief with anxious “anticipation” and start the mourning period earlier than the Ninth. For our waiting until the Ninth to express any concern, gives the appearance that God’s ability to continue this pattern of punishing during this season is false. As if we are not scared. Conversely, our anticipation refers to something “expected”. Meaning, we no longer deny what is worth crying for like that first generation. We accept God’s lesson, that these tragedies are His doings, and with our anticipation of Tisha B’Av expressed in a preempted mourning from the 1st of Av, we testify to God’s orchestration of those tragic days in the past, and His ability to mete out justice, literally “right now”. Therefore, we learn that we are wise to avoid court cases in this time, lest we be punished with an unfortunate verdict now, due to our sins: God can certainly time the delivery of punishments due to us, to fall out during this time. Of course, if someone has not sinned all year, he has nothing to fear during these days, since “there is no affliction without sin”. (Tal. Sabbath 55a-55b) To display our conviction in the nature of these days, we “anticipate” their arrival by commencing some measure of mourning from the first of Av.
Our final question is the dispute between Rabbi Yochanan and the Rabbis regarding the focus of the tragedy: are we to commemorate the Temple’s “destruction”, in which case, since it burned primarily on the tenth of Av, Rabbi Yochanan would have instituted that day? Or are we recalling the “commencement” of the destruction, which occurred on the Ninth? Of course we rule in accord with the Rabbis, but we wish to understand the dispute…theoretically.
I suggest as follows: Rabbi Yochanan selected the tenth as the day of commemoration, as he viewed the “punishment” (fire) as most significant, and the majority of punishment transpired on the tenth. To Rabbi Yochanan, the day is to teach man about God’s justice: justice is the category under which punishment falls.
The Rabbis disagreed. They stated that since the punishment “started” on the Ninth, therefore the Ninth was selected as the day of commemoration. The idea of something “starting” indicates a “transformation”. To the Rabbis, the transformed state of the Jews from a good to an evil fate is the essence of the day. The fact we were punished is a mere result. But the fact that we deserved a punishment to commence – a transformation where God now rejected us – highlights something in the Jews that deserved this transformation: we faulted. So the dispute boils down to whether the day is to offer recognition of God’s justice, or a detection of our sin.
According to either view, Tisha B’Av is a prime opportunity to focus on what truly matters. We can detect and address our shortcomings by witnessing God’s justice, and examining those sins deserving His attention. “God punishes only those whom He loves.” So these last few days of the Three Weeks, and Tisha B’Av can afford the person truly seeking perfection a window of opportunity.