Tisha B'Av

Voices from the field

An Opportunity for Ahavat Chinam

By Rachel Smith-Savaya, Jewish Agency for Israel Shlicha to The iCenter

The Old City on Shavu’ot was one of the highlights and the low points of my gap year. It was the late 90’s: I was 18-years-old, studying in a Midrasha (מדרשה), a seminary. This meant that we would clearly be involved in a Tikkun Leil Shavu’ot (תיקון ליל שבועות)—an  all night learning session on Erev Shavu'ot. After dinner, we began learning, ending around 3am so that we would have time to walk to the Old City of Jerusalem and be at the Kotel for sunrise prayers.

Rachel Smith-Savaya leading a group through the Old City of JerusalemAs we walked to the Old City, Jews of all different backgrounds and types of dress poured out of every street and alley, in every direction the eye could see. Spontaneous singing and dancing broke out in the streets, and there was an overwhelming sense of joy and celebration in the air. “This is what it must have been like in Temple times!” I thought to myself. Shavu’ot is one of the Shalosh Regalim (שלוש רגלים, “Three Pilgrimage Festivals”), meant that in which Jews historically ascended to Jerusalem to bring sacrifices to the Temple and join in festivities of the holiday. What I was seeing in front of my eyes was such a powerful visual, and I felt an overpowering sense of belonging to everyone else there. Surely this was walking in the footsteps of our ancestors and what once (twice!) was.

Uplifted by all of this, we entered the Old City and were led to a balcony overlooking the Kotel. And there, amongst the singing, dancing, and now praying, my eye was drawn to something else. Something else that deflated me immediately. I noticed a fight break out between two groups by the southern wall excavations (an archaeological site next to—yet separated from—the Kotel). An egalitarian group had gathered to pray there, and a group of religious Orthodox men (judging by their dress) had come to stop them. Beyond my naive shock of seeing Jews preventing other Jews from praying, I was hit by the ridiculous irony of this happening at the southern wall excavations—literally next to ruins of what was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. “You fools!” I thought, “We are taught in the Gemara (Talmud Bavli, Yoma 9b) that the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred (sinat chinam, שנאת חינם). For every generation in which the Temple is not rebuilt, it is as if it was because of that generation that the Temple was destroyed (Talmud Yerushalmi Yoma 1:1).” Crashing down to reality from my earlier ‘spiritual high,’ I wondered how we have not learned the lessons of 2,000 years ago…

This might have happened on Shavu’ot, yet this is what I always remember and ponder on Tisha B’Av (תשעה באב, the fast day of the “9th of Av”). Rather than thinking about the Temple, I find it far more relatable to think about the people. It deeply saddens me that we are still so divided. For me personally, Tisha B’Av is ‘Pluralism Day’—and a day that should overflow into every day of every year. How can we create opportunities for ahavat chinam—baseless love—instead of baseless hatred? How can we come together as the Am (people) that we are? In that way, Tisha B’Av perhaps will turn from a day of mourning to a day of celebration.