Celebrating Hope in Impossible Conditions
Rabbi Jill Jacobs
Tisha B'Av, 2010
Can you imagine living out your own death not just once, but forty times? According to one midrash, that’s exactly what the Israelites did during their journey through the wilderness. According to this text, once God decreed that the generation that left Egypt would die in the desert, the people began spending each Tisha B’Av preparing for their own deaths:
Rabbi Levi said: Each year, on the day before Tisha B’Av, Moses would send a herald through the whole camp to proclaim, “Go out and dig.” And they would go out and dig graves and would sleep in them. The next morning, a herald would go out saying, “Stand up and separate the dead from the living.” They would stand up and get out of their graves, and would find fifteen thousand missing. By the end of the forty years, six hundred thousand (the entire first generation) were missing. And in the fortieth and last year, they did such, and found that no one was missing. They said, “It seems that we made a mistake in the date.” So they did the same thing on the tenth of Av, and on the eleventh, and on the twelfth, and the thirteenth, and the fourteenth. When the full moon came (showing that the ninth of the month had certainly passed), they said, “It seems that God has cancelled the decree.” And they went and turned the day into a festival. (Eicha Rabbah, Petichta 33)
Imagine being among this last generation of the living. For each of the past forty years, or for every year since your birth, you have spent Tisha B’Av sleeping in your own grave. When you go to sleep on the evening of the ninth of Av, you never know whether you will wake up in the morning. When you do wake up, you go searching for your parents, siblings, friends, and neighbors, knowing that some of them will probably be missing.
Finally, the survivors wake up the fortieth year and find that there have been no overnight deaths. They cannot believe that the plague has passed. So they spend the rest of the week sleeping in their graves, waiting for the deaths to come. Only after five more nights of this morbid ritual do they allow themselves to celebrate. This celebration corresponds to the holiday of Tu B’av (fifteenth of Av), described by the Talmud as a festival of love.
How are the people who enter the land of Israel affected by the experience of having lived through their own deaths year after year? It is hard to believe that these macabre memories would ever fade. We might imagine the members of this generation obsessed with death. Maybe they never allow themselves to invest in their new homeland, out of worry that they will not live to see the fruits of their labors. Eventually, of course, the descendents of this generation do bring tragedy upon themselves through the behavior that leads to the destruction to the first and second Temples on Tisha B’Av many years later. Perhaps the last generation of the desert bequeaths to their children a self-fulfilling prophecy of death and destruction.
For those of us who have spent years working and praying for a just and peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it sometimes feels as though we have spent years sleeping in our own graves. Year after year, we watch as thousands of individuals on all sides suffer as a result of the ongoing occupation. We never know who will make it through the year. Nor are we ever able to breathe a sigh of relief, and to say “we have survived.”
It is easy to adopt a fatalist attitude. We can give up on taking any action to change the situation, and instead simply try to protect ourselves and our loved ones. After all, we might tell ourselves, people die every year, and will continue to die. Countless hours of peace work seem to go nowhere. Each morning’s news brings more stories of failed talks and continued pain.
The Jewish community is very good at this kind of mournful thinking. Tisha B’Av, which we marked today, may not be the most popular Jewish holiday, but it is still more widely observed than the more festive Tu B’Av, which takes place this coming Monday. Tu B’Av is the celebration of life, hope, and possibility even in the most impossible conditions. Celebrating Tu B’Av is a statement of hope, even when the whiff of death is still fresh.
We have already spent Tisha B’av mourning the destruction of the Temple, the exile of our ancestors, and the suffering of the Jewish people throughout history. Now it’s time to celebrate. This Tu B’av, consider hosting an event, or at least raising a toast devoted to hope. We have spent enough time sleeping in our own graves. Now is the time to move forward.