The Under-appreciated Holiday

Rabbi Reuven Mann

There are many holidays on the Jewish calendar. Some of them have more mazal (good fortune) than others. In my unscientific opinion, I would rate the three most popular ones as Passover, Chanukah, and, yes, surprisingly, Yom Kippur. The theme of Passover, liberation from bondage and man’s intrinsic right to freedom, strike a chord in the heart of every Jew. Indeed, these ideas are so universally compelling that many Gentiles also celebrate the holiday and participate in some form of Passover seder.

Chanukah (known in the popular vernacular as Hanukkah) also gets a lot of attention. Its celebration of the victory of the few against the many, as well as the miracle of the lights in the Holy Temple, are upbeat and inspiring. To this day, the Maccabees are a symbol of Jewish pride and courageous dedication to the preservation of Jewish ideals.

At first glance, the popularity of Yom Kippur is difficult to comprehend. It’s a day of deprivation and abstention from all the basic creature comforts, the most significant being food and drink. Fasting and endless praying are the primary obligations of the day. The popularity of this holiday is because it is the Day of Atonement. There is nothing that a person desires more fervently than the approval of G-d. We are all creatures of conflict. We have powerful instinctual desires and emotional cravings. No matter how hard we try, we fall prey to seduction and commit sins. At the same time, we have a conscience that gnaws at us. We make all kinds of excuses and rationalizations for our sinful behavior. However, at bottom, we long for understanding and forgiveness.

Yom Kippur is the perfect remedy for this dilemma of the human condition. It offers us a pardon we can’t refuse. Renounce all pleasures and spend one day in fasting and prayer, and you will be forgiven. It is also a day on which every Jew, no matter how far he has strayed, can renew his membership in the chosen people. Without a sacrifice, we would not feel that we had made a sincere expression of Jewishness. For modern man, there is no greater sacrifice than going, for 25 hours, without food or drink and, in addition, being cut off from his computer, iPad, and cellphone.

There are other holidays that do not have much mazal and are observed only by a small number of the extremely religious. Perhaps the least popular holiday of our religion is Tisha B’Av. Like Yom Kippur, it demands a full day and night of abstention from food and drink, as well as other basic comforts, such as washing and wearing leather shoes. One can understand the lack of excitement about Tisha B’Av. It occurs smack in the middle of summer, when we are all in vacation mode. This is a time for partying, not mourning. Moreover, there is no obvious payoff for the suffering that the day engenders. At the conclusion of Yom Kippur, we obtain forgiveness and a clean slate. What do we get in exchange for the afflictions of Tisha B’Av? The day is painful, its point is not obvious, and it solicits little interest, except among the most religiously committed.

The unpopularity of Tisha B’Av is a shame because, in many ways, it is the most important of our holidays. What is it that we “celebrate” on this day? We celebrate what we, who are supposed to be G-d’s chosen people, had, but lost because something went terribly amiss. Tisha B’Av is a day of commemoration, which really means acknowledgment of a painful truth, i.e., that we are not, now, the nation we were intended to be. On Tisha B’Av, we recount all the major tragedies of Jewish history, including the destruction of both Temples, exile, dispersion, endless persecution, and the Holocaust. We do not do this out of any sense of self-pity, not are we interested in condemning our enemies. 

A major theme that permeates the prayers is that of Tziduk HaDin (the righteousness of G-d’s judgment). This means that we must eschew all complaints against G-d and not give vent to any anger against our many tormentors. We say, “Unto You, Hashem, is righteousness and to us, shame of face.” Tisha B’Av demands that we confront the reality of Jewish subjugation, powerlessness, and persecution—and affirm its true cause. We must acknowledge that this has happened, that we have been abandoned by G-d because we have not been faithful to the Covenant. Hashem has not abrogated the Covenant, which is eternal, nor has He disbanded His people, who are eternal. We are experiencing the “downside” of the Covenant, i.e., the perils that will engulf us when we are cast away from our Protector. 

Tisha B’Av is the most important holiday, because it is the one in which we confront the existential condition of the Jewish people. Anyone who cares about Judaism and is perplexed by the dichotomy between our claim to be G-d’s chosen people, the “apple of His eye,” and the reality of the indignity of our historical suffering, must observe Tisha B’Av in order to resolve this dilemma.

Tisha B’Av is, for us, a day of mourning for the loss of the ideal relationship with Hashem that we were destined to have, but lost, due to our sins. The objective of the fast is to rectify our ways, return to Hashem, and resume our true role as the Jewish people. What is the payoff for a long day of fasting and deprivation? It is nothing less than the rebirth of the Jewish people and its restoration to its glorious status.

Tisha B’Av is the time when we mourn our past, only to facilitate the redemption of the Jewish people and, as a necessary result, all of mankind.

Shabbat shalom.