One of my most precious possessions is a yellowed, tattered prayerbook that was printed in Vienna in 1859, one hundred years before I was born. The prayers are printed only in Hebrew, and an inscription on its front cover reveals that it was the bar mitzvah gift to my great-grandfather from his own father (my great-great-grandfather). I was given this treasure by my own grandfather at my bar mitzvah celebration in 1972.
You might think that the book to pass through the ages, across the generations might be a High Holy Day prayerbook, or perhaps one for Shabbat and the daily minyanim. But what I inherited is a prayerbook for Tisha B'Av!
Tisha B'Av is a day of fasting and sorrow, a time for grieving over the Neo-Babylonian destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. and the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. Throughout the years, other tragedies have been added to the list - expulsions, inquisitions, rapes, lootings, burning our holy books, the Nazi murder of the six million, Arab hatred of Israel and Jews, and the deadening antisemitism of the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe.
In response to the millennia of Jew hatred, the rabbis of antiquity instituted a day of sadness and affliction to mourn the tragic suffering of our ancestors, to cry over our exile and our alienation, and to implore God to recall our sufferings and to bring them to an end.
This is not cheerful stuff, and it is hardly what any of us might choose as a single legacy to leave to our children. After all, reinforcing the notion of Jew-as-victim is harmful both to Jewish self-respect and to Gentiles' understandings of the rich bounty of Jewish civilization and the profundity of Jewish spirituality and religion.
Why would my great-great-grandparents select a prayerbook for Tisha B'Av as the legacy they would leave for the generations? What message are they trying to convey to us and to our children as well?
I think they recognized the fragility of civilization and of human decency. As products of the Old World, they encountered bigotry firsthand, and they knew that the capacity to hate other people because of their religion was a manifestation of a sorry aspect of being human: the need to feel good about oneself by belittling or by hurting someone else. Those who pretend that humanity is loving at its core, or that people will one day transcend their propensity toward stereotyping and bigotry, live in a dangerous fantasy.
The best possible response to human bigotry is two-fold:
1. Cultivate a strong sense of our own Jewish identity. By knowing who we are, glorifying in the role our heritage played (and continues to pay) in civilizing humanity, in placing ethical rigor and spiritual depth at the forefront of the human agenda, Jews and Judaism have a proud past and a pressing future. We can feel good about who we are so long as we remain students of our ancestral traditions, with its ethical and religious goals of elevating humanity through the rigors of discipline, loving kindness, and sacred deeds.
2. Mourn the victims of humanity's brutality in times past. Those who do not study the past are doomed to repeat it, Santayana warned us. By not only reminding ourselves of the suffering of Jews throughout the ages, but by training ourselves to feel that tragedy in our heart, we may learn to respond vociferously when anti-Semites threaten to act, when those who propose to harm Israel try to lessen our support, and when any bigotry, against anyone, looms on the horizon. Empathy with Jewish suffering is our portal to stronger identification with the Jewish people everywhere, and with all humanity victimized by bigotry.
That legacy - empathy for victims and vigilance against bigotry - is the gift my grandparents offered with their Prayerbook for Tisha B'Av. That legacy is still-vital premise of this fast day of memory and of caring.