Historical memory is not a matter for annoying arguments about minutiae, it’s an issue of national security. We remember, therefore we are. “By the rivers of Babylon,” a Jewish exile wrote in Psalms after the destruction of the First Temple, “there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion” (Psalms 137:1).
Even then, our forefathers swore not to forget Jerusalem. This memory brought them back to Zion. And then, again, exile, and again, an oath. Where would we be if it weren’t for the memory of Zion and Jerusalem?
Today, Tisha B’Av is not a religious day in the narrow sense of the term. The destruction of the Second Temple wasn’t just the destruction of the Temple itself, but of our national homeland. Consider the history from the time of the Second Temple through today—into how many limbs the national body was split, to the number of countries to which we scattered, what persecution and rioting, suffering and distress we endured. And everywhere we thought we would be left in peace for a moment or for a century, we were served with a bill in blood and once again sent away into exile. The expulsion from Spain in the Hebrew month of Av in 1492 was the model for all the banishments. We rattled around a long exile that ended in the most terrible event in human history: the Holocaust. These disasters are all rooted in this day, on which for thousands of years we loaded all our mourning and tears, all the evil and destruction we experienced—personal, as well as national.
There can be no independence without the memory of Tisha B’Av. The nation cannot correct its path without acknowledging the events that led to the terrible destruction, the war between brothers, the different factions in Jerusalem in the seventh decade C.E. Brothers were turning on each other years before the bitter enemy arrived to finish the job.
There was a reason why our sages added two years to the actual date on which the Temple was destroyed (70 C.E.), bringing the social and political destruction forward to 68 C.E. This helps us understand the sages’ legend about Nebuzaradan, commander of Nebuchadnezzar’s guard (for various reasons, they were apparently referring to Titus and Rome): “It is a slain nation that you slew; it is a burned sanctuary that you burned; it is ground flour that you ground” (Eichah Rabbah 1:43). They taught us that the war between brothers was the main disaster, and the burning of the Temple was just a realization of it, an expression of the internal conflagration that was eating away and the hearts of the people and caused us to lose our independence—a lesson for the generations to come, especially our own.
Here is the testimony of Yosef Ben Matityahu (Josephus Flavius) about the destruction of the Temple from his book The Wars of the Jews. After he describes the horrible slaughter of Jews by the Romans—“Nor was there a commiseration of any age, or any reverence of gravity; but children, and old men, and profane persons, and priests, were all slain”—the writer adds, “The flame was also carried a long way, and made an echo, together with the groans of those that were slain; and because this hill was high, and the works at the Temple were very great, one would have thought that the whole city had been on fire. Nor can one imagine anything either greater or more terrible than this noise; for there was at once a shout of the Roman legions, who were marching all together. … The people also that were left above were beaten back upon the enemy, and under a great consternation, and made sad moans at the calamity they were under; the multitude also that was in the city joined in this outcry with those that were upon the hill. The sound of the shouts of the people on the Mount joined the screams of the masses in the city as they saw the fire in the Temple. … One would have thought that the hill itself, on which the Temple stood, was seething hot, as full of fire on every part of it, that the blood was larger in quantity than the fire, and those that were slain more in number that those that slew them.”
Zion, we have not forgotten. Even after returning home from the four corners of the earth, we will continue to mourn, remember, and remind others what befell us. In memory lies the secret of redemption. “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem” (Isaiah 66:13).
Dror Eydar is a columnist for Israel Hayom, whose English-language content is distributed in the United States exclusively by JNS.