Archive | July, 2009

The Ninth of Av: Is it possible to pray for too much?

29 Jul

This past week when the gabbai of our synagogue announced the times and locations for Tisha B’Av services, he prefaced his announcement with the customary preface, “In case the Messiah does not come, and the Temple is not rebuilt before then, services for Tisha B’Av will take place….”

This quaint custom is all part of the annual routine run-up to Tisha B’Av. I myself have a related type of behavior. It is customary to sit close to the ground, like a mourner, throughout the night and into the day of Tisha B’Av. As I get older, it is really very uncomfortable to sit on the ground. A low to the ground chair would be perfect, and I do see many of my fellow congregants who bring such chairs along with them each and every-year. Some of them even refer to them as their “Tisha B’Av chairs.” I cannot buy a “Tisha B’Av” chair – that would be like admitting that Tisha B’av is going to be a part of my holiday cycle from hereon in – not wanting so much to acknowledge that possibility, I will not buy the chair – I guess you could say that it is my own little personal prayer that this be the last Tisha B’Av.

To tell you the truth, I am beginning to rethink my longstanding “chairless prayer”…and not just because I am getting older. I am beginning to rethink exactly what it is we should be praying for and fasting about on Tisha B’Av.

In this week’s Torah reading, Vaetchanan, Moshe retells how he petitioned God to repeal the sentence and allow Moshe to go together with the nation into Eretz Yisrael. God, recalls Moshe, angered and firmly denied the request, answering Moshe with the words:

“Rav lach , al tosef daber elai od badavar hazeh!” (Deut. 3:23)

“That’s enough, do not speak to me further regarding this issue!”

Rashi cites an intriguing alternate understanding of the words: Rav lach – “That’s enough. Stop your beckoning, so that people should not say: The master is so harsh, and the student is overly-persistent.(Sotah 13b)

It would seem from this translation of God’s words that the sages conveyed to us a very serious issue, worthy of  our attention. They seem to teach that there are times when our prayers go over the top – there are times when we pray too much for something that God is not prepared to grant us.  In those times, not only do we find ourselves disheartened, but we may create a situation in which those whose desperate prayers remain unanswered, and we actually begin to question God’s benevolence, or His very existence. 

When prayers for individuals or for the nation go unheeded, there will  be those who blame it on God’s harshness.  And if it isn’t harshness, then it’s powerlessness.  “How could God let this suffering go on for so long?”

When we pray on Tisha B’Av for the restoration of Jerusalem, the rebuilding of the Temple, for a return to “the days of old,” what exactly are we demanding of God?  Are we not asking God to answer a prayer that is not really His to answer? That is, are we not really asking God to do for us what it is that we ultimately have the power to do for ourselves at this point, if as a nation it is what we truly want for ourselves?  

And if the question of a restored Jerusalem and a Temple, and a complete in-gathering of the exiles are really all achievements that are in our hands today, then what is all the praying for? Why do we have a Tisha B’Av at all?  Are we not year after year simply aggravating the situation, pinning the responsibility upon God who perhaps, for good reason, has no intentions of “fixing” this?

Isn’t our fasting and prayer just becoming one very big cop-out; rather than taking responsibility for our destiny, we seem to be pinning the responsibility on God. Do we expect that the 25 hour sacrifice of food, drink and other pleasures will somehow serve to appease God and lead him to grant us our wishes?

And worse, how do we understand the seeming silence to our requests and petitions, year after year? Is not God, in His silence, shouting down to us:

Rav lach!

Therefore, I suggest we look at this annual Tisha B’Av observance in a very different way: Tisha B’Av is not about praying for what we do not have, it is about reminding OURSELVES of why we do not have it….WE ARE THE PROBLEM…not God.

Did you ever ask yourself the question:  What did they do on Tishah ‘Av during the period of the Second Temple? (roughly from 500 BCE-70 CE).

In his commentary to the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 1,3), Rambam(Maimonides)states that the Jews in the Second Temple period fasted on Tishah B’av.

The Temple was standing, and yet, according to Rambam, they fasted just as we are about to do.  Why?  What were they mourning for then?

Dr. David Hanschke, of the Department of Talmud at Bar Ilan University wrote as follows:

Perhaps the rationale behind this was that the first destruction had proven that the Temple could be destroyed, and from then on the possibility that G-d would destroy His house and exile His people was a real one. We know that the prophets fought against the belief which stubbornly held that this very idea was a theological impossibility. It could not be possible, claimed some, that the Temple of the Lord, the foundation of His seat in the universe, could fall. The destruction of the First Temple put an end to this certainty: Never again could man put his trust in wood and stone – even the stones of the Temple. From that point on responsibility for the future rests squarely on the shoulders of the people and their behavior. If they deserved it – they would live in their own land in the shadow of their Temple, but if not – the Temple would fall and the people would be exiled.

They therefore fasted on Tishah B’av, all through the Second Temple period. On that day they confirmed their understanding that destruction is always a possibility. No faith can be placed in slogans such as “G-d will help us” because the responsibility for our continued existence as a people is ours alone. The awareness that destruction is possible may very well be the key to preventing it in the future when the Temple is rebuilt. Our sense of responsibility may be a contributing factor toward the eventual rebuilding of the Third Temple, may it occur speedily in our days.

Now this makes a lot of sense…this is the reason we are about to fast and devote the next 25 hours to remember the Temple and the destruction of Jerusalem – to remind ourselves that people just like us brought it about, and until we get our act together, nothing is going to change

Tisha B’Av is not a petition to God, it is a day of remorse and national introspection. And there you have it…the reason I am rethinking my “chairless minhag.”  We may be destined to observe Tisha B’Av forever, as an ongoing annual reminder of our own national responsibilities. 

If we pray for anything of God on Tisha B’Av, it should be for the wisdom to realize this.

Have a meaningful fast.