Tisha B'Av: The Time for Covenantal Restoration

The Book of Lamentations, which is read on Tisha B’Av, begins in the form of several consecutive alphabetical acrostics.1 Rabbi Yochanan2 explains that this is because the source of all the brokenness of the world is in the rejection of the Torah’s instructions, which were given through the Hebrew Alphabet. This is perhaps the most fundamental teaching that Jewish traditions offers to the world: G-d is good and following in G-d’s ways brings goodness to the world.

On the first night of Passover, which is always the same night of the week as Tisha B’Av, we are instructed to engage the child who doesn’t yet know how to ask with: אַתְּ פְּתַח לוֹ - you will begin [the conversation]. It is also interpreted3 as a directive to start their teaching with the Alphabet; Aleph א through Tof ת. These twenty-two letters of the Hebrew Alphabet correspond to the twenty two days from the 17th of Tammuz, when the first set of tablets were broken, until Tisha B’Av when the Temples were destroyed.

When we initiate a child’s education with אַתְּ פְּתַח לוֹ, we are also delivering an additional basic truth of the world: if you don’t treat people nicely, then everyone will suffer. This simple teaching is contained in a more complex allusion through the word אַתְּ, as an 4AtBaSh אתבש,  to demonstrate that even more advanced and complicated problems still contain this rudimentary formula. The Tur5 provides the verse6 “על מצות ומרורים יאכלוהו - they shall eat with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs” as the proof text to remind us of the connection between Passover and the 9th of Av.7  

Although Tisha B’av is the saddest day on the Hebrew calendar we don’t say Tachanun8 on it, because we believe that in the future it will be experienced as a festival.9 The first night of Passover is the indicating sign to whether we, as a people, will finally be able to celebrate on Tisha B'av. It provides the opportunity to achieve a level of unity, and communal responsibility for each other, that will end the bitterness of God’s concealment, the consequence of our poor treatment of each other that was the cause of our enslavement in Egypt and the Temple’s destruction.10

This theme informs the entire Hagada and is meant to frame our experience on Tisha B’Av.  From the ritual acts of dipping at the Seder, which are inspired by the brother’s dipping of Joseph’s coat into blood,11 to the placement of an egg12 on the seder plate.13 We are meant to feel empowered to reclaim our national narrative and choose our own redemption. We even conclude the Seder with the song Chad Gadya, the goat my father bought, retelling our story from the perspective of a reunited family.

The Exodus from Egypt is called “Yetzias Mitzrayim” while the Three Weeks are called “Ben HaMitzarim”.14 Passover represents an inclusive gathering, as the verse says:15 כֹּ֛ל קְהַ֥ל עֲדַֽת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל - all the assembled congregation of the Israelites. While the unleavened bread is emblematic of the divisiveness of evil as it says:16 חָמֵ֔ץ חֶלְקָ֛ם - which can be parsed as “chametz divides”.17
The Maggid section of the Haggadah begins: “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in Egypt”. Our telling of the story is immediately, and awkwardly, disrupted with the recognition that “Anyone who is hungry come and eat.” And then with a seemingly unrelated aspirational wish about the Temple: “This year we are here, next year we will be in Jerusalem.”

This interruption is reminiscent, and perhaps sourced in Abraham’s18 pivoting to the needs of his guests,19 while engaged in a conversation20 with the Divine.21 It also nods to the famous story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza22 centered around someone who was mistakenly invited to a dinner party, and then rejected when their correct identity is made known. The Talmud attributes the destruction of the Temple to the complacency of the privileged, having a place at the table, but not leveraging their power to make sure there is a place for the perceived other. These exclusionary practices contribute to a universal breakdown of human dignity and G-d responds by withholding our access to the holiest of spaces.

The Torah calls the time of Passover Chodesh23 HaAviv אביב,  which is understood as coming from the language of father24 אב. One interpretation is that it is the source of all twelve months25 אב-יב,  as it begins the calendar year for festivals. On a deeper level, it also means that it contains within it all the potential goodness that will later be manifested in the world, particularly in the month of Av26 אב, and a return to the proper order of the alphabet.

Sefer Yetzirah, an early mystical work, describes stones - avanim אבנים, being used to build spiritual houses. The Gra, in his commentary on this work, explains that these stones are the letters, and the houses are words. Each one of us represents a letter27 and just as the twelve stones under Jacob’s head came together to become one,28 we must also acknowledge the shared source of our souls29 if we are going to build a world that is worthy to house the Divine Presence.

Teshuva, repentance, means to return to a proper way of being. It is also an invitation to return to the basics, to the Aleph Bet of Judaism. We must orient our efforts of reunification through deconstructing the systems that perpetuate these separations and restore the familiar love that we are expected to have for each other to build a healthy and happy home. אַתְּ פְּתַח לוֹ - when the world is so broken that we don’t even know how to ask, there is constructive comfort in our ability to be kind to each other and build a better world from love.

Rabbi Mike Moskowitz is a deeply traditional and radically progressive advocate for trans rights and a vocal ally for LGBTQ inclusivity. Rabbi Moskowitz received three Ultra-Orthodox ordinations while learning in the Mir in Jerusalem and in Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, NJ. He is a David Hartman Center Fellow and the author of Textual Activism. His writings can be found at www.rabbimikemoskowitz.com.

Image of stone wall by Alexander Schimmeck via Unsplash

1See the Rokeach for ways that this is concealed in the first word “איכה”.
2Sanhedrin 104a.
3Tiferes Bunim.
4The AtBash cipher is a particular type of monoalphabetic gematria formed by taking the alphabet and mapping it to its reverse, so that the first letter pairs with the last letter א-ת, the second letter ,ב to the second to last letter, ש, and so on.
5Rabbi Jacob Ben Asher 1269-1340.
6Exodus 12:8.
7Here the aleph is the first night of Passover and the tuf is Tisha B’Av. The first 6 letters אבגדהו represent the 6 nights of Passover while the last 6 letters תשרקצפ corresponds to the 6 different holidays and the night of the week that they will fall out on the calendar. For example, this year the first night of Passover was Friday night, which means that the 9th of Av begins Friday night. See Simon 428 for an expanded explanation.
8Supplications which are omitted on the holidays and happy days.
9Zecharia 8:19 calls it a moed as does Lamentations 1:15. See Rambam in the end of the laws of tanis see also Tannis 29a.
10The language that is used is: סימן לקביעת המועדים - homileticly meaning that we will establish whether it is celebratory or not.
11See Ben Ish Chai.
12Shulchan Aruch 476:2 נראה לי הטעם משום שליל תשעה באב נקבע בליל פסח ועוד זכר לחורבן.
13The egg is the customary food served to a mourner and eaten on the eve of Tisha B’Av.
14Literally between the difficulties.
15Exodus 12:6.
16Leviticus 6:10.
17 מצה and קהל have the same numerical value just as חמץ and חלק.
18Abraham is called אברהם - as father of many nations - Genesis 17:5.
19Hachnosas Orchim, inviting guests, is an opportunity to model the correct way of being and gather people under the wings of the Divine. See Meir Einei Chachamim page 381.
20This verse is used as a proof text by Rebbe Yehudah in the name of Rav, Shabbat 127a, גְּדוֹלָה הַכְנָסַת אוֹרְחִין , מֵהַקְבָּלַת פְּנֵי שְׁכִינָה. Perhaps Passover is chosen as the festival to highlight this Mitzvah because Lot, on Passover, invited those same angels as guests and fed them Matzos. Genesis 19:3 and Rashi there.
21Genesis 18:3.
22Gitten 55.
23Exodus 23:15.
25See Rabbanu B’chaya Exodus 13:4. יב are the Hebrew letters for twelve.
26See Mei HaShiloach Parshat Ki Tisa.
27The word for Israel - ישראל is understood as an acronym for -  יש ששים ריבוא אותיות לתורה there are 600,000 letters in the Torah. See Penei Yehoshua Kiddushin 30a.  

28Genesis 28:11, Chullin 91b.
29Shar HaGilgulim introduction 17.