Open Schools? Tisha B’av Says “No!”

The mystery of why Jews fast on Tisha B'Av - World News - Haaretz.com

This week, and possibly when you are reading this, many Jewish people around the world are mourning and fasting on what is the most sorrowful day on the Jewish calendar. We have arrived at the 9th of Av, or Tisha B’Av. So many tragic and devastating events are reported to have happened in history on or around the 9th of Av, explaining the reason for the mourning. The two most prominent events associated with this date are the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, with the first being destroyed in 586 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar (Babylonia), and the second in 70 CE by Titus (Rome). This date is also associated with the formal defeat of Bar Kochba’s rebellion, and the subsequent Roman recapture of Jerusalem. Let’s keep going. The 9th of Av (in the year 1290 CE) was also when Edward I strongly urged, via an edict, that all Jews leave England. Many people think of the year 1492 as the year that “Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Well, on the 9th of Av in 1492, the Jews were expelled from Spain by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Oh, and World War I began on the 9th of Av in 1914. Enough already, right?

What did the sages think? Just to scrape the surface a bit: Rabbi Akiva, one of our Talmudic stalwarts, said that whoever works on the 9th of Av will never see a sign of a blessing, while some other sages believed that the joy of Jerusalem will never be renewed if one does not specifically mourn for Jerusalem on the 9th of Av (B. ta 30b). The Book of Lamentations (which is traditionally read on Tisha B’Av) says, “She weepeth, yea, she weepeth in the night” (Lam. 1:2). Rabbi Yohanan thought that the “double weepeth” represented the First and Second Temples, respectively. Tisha B’av is a tragedy–There is no joyful break the fast a la Yom Kippur. In fact, Jews are urged to maintain a serious tone throughout the day, displaying the gravity of what is being represented. 

How is this relevant right now? Unfortunately, Tisha B’Av 5780 is beginning to look foolishly grim, and I feel it must be addressed. As we all know, we are living in what has become the time of COVID-19, and what a confusing tsuris-laden experience it has all been thus far. We are faced with a time that will be looked back upon by historians as tumultuous and dangerous, to say the least. As individuals squabble over the most basic protection (a facemask!) against an airborne illness, people are dying in great numbers. As of this moment, over 150,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. The number of those who have died does no justice to the fact that each of these “statistics” was an elaborate and beautiful “Etz Chayim” or “Tree of Life,” which, if you believe anything about Kabbalah, contained sparks of Divinity within them. With each life lost, we lost a bit of ourselves and the “Echad” or Unity that holds us all together in a macro sense. 

Now, we are standing on the precipice of what seems to be a terrible mistake. Is this an error in judgment by so many, or something else? Honestly, it feels a bit sinister. During a time when we must admit that we know very little about COVID-19, especially its long-term impact, we are considering opening up schools and sending in our precious children, their teachers, and many staff members who could so easily become ill themselves, or spread this deadly disease to vulnerable others. How can we expose our children, who trust us to protect them from harm, to a virus that could kill them? Are we so lost? Many people talk of the financial strain that will be placed on them if school does not open up. School is not a child care center, and our teachers are not babysitters. Our schools are supposed to be places of exploration and learning, and our teachers–the educators and guides leading our greenest citizens on the journey of discovery in a safe environment. Yes, school has not always proven to be 100 percent safe (the horrible reality of school shootings, bullying, etc. do exist), but do we ever consciously place our children in harm’s way? Our society is about to knowingly take advantage of the inborn trust of our children, and risk their lives for the sake of what is perceived as convenience. We might struggle financially while we wait for the pandemic to conclude in some form or fashion; but we can recover financially. How can we emotionally recover from the loss of a loved one due to decisions that were made with full knowledge of the lethal potentialities?

I am reminded of a Talmudic writing regarding the binding of Isaac. According to this Aggadic writing, Satan went to Isaac’s mother Sarah, in the form of Isaac himself, while he was bound by his own father, Abraham. When Sarah saw her son, she asked, “What did your father do?” He answered, saying: “My father took me, led me up hills and down into valleys, until finally he brought me up to the summit of a high and towering mountain, where he built an altar, set out the firewood, bound me upon the altar, and grasped a knife to cut my throat. Had not the Holy One said to him, ‘Lay not thy hand upon the lad,’ I would have been slaughtered.” It was said that before Satan even finished telling the story, Sarah’s soul left her (Tanhuma, Va-yera 23; Eccles. R. 9:7). 

Whenever a new “plan” for a school opening comes out, I feel a bit like Sarah from the story–I want to jump out of my own skin. Are we collectively prepared to lead our children, who follow us as Isaac so willingly followed Abraham, to a crude altar to be sacrificed? Are we prepared to tell that story, and have that be written and told by others? I am praying that the Holy One will intercede at the last moment again, and we will know that we have all been tested as Abraham was. However, if Judaism teaches us anything, it is to pray for things as if they depended on God, but to act as if everything depends upon us–our Mishkan T’Filah siddur tells us to do so come every Shabbat. 

While mourning on the 9th of Av or Tisha B’Av, I have decided to do so with hope in my heart. There is still time to do the right thing, to make corrections, and follow through with sensible and safe decisions. I pray that we can all look into the eyes of our children, and know that we are not sending them into what we know to be danger. I feel the pull in the collective air between yetzer ha-tov and yetzer ha-ra, or our good and evil inclinations. Let the good overcome the evil, and let our children be safe, even if it means inconvenience and financial struggle in the short-term.

If we have free will, and the Divine is awaiting our next move, I hope that we decide to save lives that we have the power to save. Some part of most of us must know that distancing desks, mandating masks to six-year-olds, and staggering schedules is equivalent to setting a room on fire because we think it will clean up spilled water. Yes, action is being taken, but the place is now burning. Sometimes doing less is the answer. We need to clean up the mess in the correct fashion, not create more devastation and chaos. 

I pray that this 9th day of the month of Av will not consist of actions that lead to an outcome that will be added to the list of tragedies surrounding this day. Let’s be smart, and protect and love one another.

L’Shalom,

Joshua

Published by Joshua Gray

I am Joshua Gray. I am a husband, father, not-for-profit-worker by day, and a former professional actor/singer. I am very active in the Jewish community in my area, helping to teach at religious school on Sundays, while also serving on the board of trustees at my local temple. My relationship with Judaism is a joy of mine, and I find great pleasure in studying texts and learning more and more Hebrew. I still enjoy warbling tunes, and I even got to sing the Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur, which was a definite highlight. Please feel free to contact me with any ideas for topics, conversations, or general inquiries. Shalom!

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