The Sinai Desert – a little over a year after the Exodus from Egypt. The Israelites are preparing for the conquest of the Promised Land. These former slaves have no self-confidence or courage, and despite all of the Divine miracles they’ve witnessed, still lack faith in God.
In an attempt to get the people behind the imminent military confrontation with the inhabitants of Canaan, Moses sends 12 spies, prominent men from each tribe, to scout the land. Moses apparently hoped the beautiful, fertile land would inspire them. Unfortunately, all but 2 of the spies gave a negative report and swayed the people against Moses. God’s response – the slave generation that came out of Egypt is condemned to die in the wilderness.
The date of this Divine decree – the 9th of Av. Thus began the history of Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the entire Jewish year. Both the First and Second Temple were destroyed on that day. In 132CE the Bar Kochba revolt was crushed, ending the last Jewish State until modern times. On the 9th of Av in 1095 Pope Urban II declared the 1st Crusade, which resulted in the death of over 10,000 Jews in Europe. The Jewish community of England was expelled in 1290 by King Edward I, and 2 centuries later in 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews of Spain. Tisha B’Av also marked the start of WWI, beginning a long period of suffering for the Jews of Europe, including pogroms and massacres, culminating in the Holocaust and the destruction of 6 million of our people during WWII.
Since the reestablishment of the State of Israel in 1948 there has been much discussion about whether Tisha B’Av should still be observed. This sentiment increased with the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967. Should we still be mourning past tragedies when Jerusalem is once again our capitol? Although the new State of Israel brought a renewed sense of pride to our people, there is still a place for Tisha B’Av in Jewish observance. It serves to remind us of the need for moral and ethical living. It focuses attention on the universal aspects of the Messianic hope. Most importantly, it gives us a sense of our most impressive and often tragic history, the sacrifices and sufferings of past generations, and affords us an opportunity to learn from our past in order to preserve our future.
August 13 is Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Comfort. This is the first of seven Haftarot of Consolation, uplifting us after Tisha B’Av. August 27-28 is the start of the month of Elul, during which we prepare ourselves for the High Holidays. How wonderful it is to start that spiritual rise to the Yamim Nora’im after the devastating low of Tisha B’Av. Our great sages were practical as well as pious. Aware of human nature and tolerances, they developed our practices and rituals in ways that people would be able to and want to observe. Realizing that we cannot jump right into the High Holidays without preparation, especially following the Tisha B’Av period, they ordered the sequence of the haftarot and designated the month of Elul as a time for spiritual introspection, a time to begin the process of granting and asking for forgiveness. We sound the shofar each day (except Shabbat) to awaken our souls.
Although we’ve been following this sequence for thousands of years, this year feels all the more special as we celebrate our 100th High Holidays together. When my family and I arrived here just a week before High Holidays in 1988, we couldn’t have imagined that we’d be celebrating this milestone 35 years later. I’m honored and humbled to be the cantor of Temple Israel as we turn 100. May our congregation continue to be a vital part of the Wilkes Barre community for years to come.