The walls of Jerusalem were breached on the seventeenth of Tammuz. The enemy's troops stormed into the Holy City, shedding blood with no pity. The attackers pressed onward, toward the walls of the Temple Mount and the walls surrounding the Sanctuary. The defenders still hoped that the wheels of doom might reverse their direction; perhaps not all was lost. The enemy might yet withdraw its siege, and allow Jerusalem a chance to recover. So long as the heart is still beating, one still dares to hope that the patient’s condition will take a turn for the better.
Heaven was waiting for the nation to repent, to turn back to G-d from the depths of their hearts. However, the people made a basic mistake. They placed their faith not in G-d, but in the physical representation of His presence on earth, the holy Temple. They were determined to defend it at all costs. In their blind devotion to the walls and the sanctuary they enclosed, they neglected their obligations to Him whose Presence imbued those walls with sanctity. But stones and timbers cannot rescue a nation from its enemies; rather than living for G-d, the people chose to die for the Temple.
The war, the Temple, and the independent kingdom of the Jews, were all destroyed.
On that fateful day, the ninth of Av, the Sanctuary was set to the torch. Subsequently, Israel went into a long and tortuous exile. There followed two thousand years of “on-site training”, at myriad locations that included the most far-flung corners of the globe. This “field training” has lasted nearly two thousand years now, and will come to its conclusion only when the nation returns to its Creator with all its heart and all its might.
That we not lose sight of our ultimate goal of return to our G-d, to our Sanctuary, and to our Land, we fast each year on the seventeenth of Tammuz, the day when the walls of Jerusalem were breached, and on the ninth of Av, the day when the Sanctuary fell into the hands of our enemies.
Basically, the Jewish nation, as a whole, is spiritually robust and healthy. Sad to say, however, its sins gnaw away at its immune system, causing damage and weakening its defenses. Compromised by weakness, the Jew becomes vulnerable to a multitude of diseases. His enemies set out to attack. Unaware of the Jews’ increased susceptibility, they anticipate fierce resistance on the part of the Jews. Their success in battle exceeds their expectations. As the Torah describes the fearful scene: “How can one pursue a thousand, and two, set ten thousand in flight, if it is not that their…” (Deuteronomy 32:30)
It was the transgressions of the nation that breached the wall before our enemies. As our Sages teach us: “It is not the snake bite which kills, but rather one’s sins which take his life.”
From the seventeenth of Tammuz, when the wall was first breached, those still surviving in Jerusalem struggled to defend the city and the Temple. There might yet have been a life-saving infusion of a Heaven-sent “medication” that would give the starving warriors the strength to repel the enemy. Sincere repentance might yet have saved the nation and its Sanctuary, but the patient refused to take the medicine which its Healer prescribed for its diseased body. The Temple was lost.
To this day, we mark these three weeks with mourning and reflection.
We might well ask: Why three weeks of mourning, from the moment the “patient” fell ill, as it were, on the seventeenth of Tammuz, until he passed away, on the ninth of Av?
Would it not be more fitting to observe a week of mourning, starting from the ninth of Av, similar to the week of the shivah, which we observe following the depth of a close relative? Why did our Sages institute these three weeks of mourning, starting with the onset of the final illness, and coming to an end with the day of actual bereavement, instead of starting on that mournful day?
We find the answer to this question in an incident related in the Bible. King David was G-d’s anointed sovereign over Israel, and author of the incomparable Psalms of praise to his Maker. Because of his exceptional spiritual stature, G-d judged him with higher standards than most people, and demanded that he reach greater heights.
When Nathan the Prophet came before King David with words of reproach, the king of all Israel accepted his rebuke at once, and declared: "I have sinned against G-d."
Nathan responded: "G-d has put aside your sin; you shall not die."
However, King David was not exonerated completely; although his own life was spared, the prophet told him that his infant son would not live. When the child became very sick, King David prayed intensely to G-d to heal him. He also fasted, and refused to lie down on a bed, choosing instead to lie on the ground.
When his men tried to help him up, he refused. Neither did he agree to eat with them. On the seventh day, the child died. The king's servants hesitated to break the news to him. "While the child was still alive, he would not listen to us," they said. "Now that the child has died, he certainly will not listen to us, and who knows what harm he may do to himself!"
The king overheard the whisperings among his servants, and understood what had happened. "Has the child died?" he asked.
They answered: "He has died."
The king rose from the earth, washed and anointed himself, and donned fresh garments. He went to the Temple to pray, then returned home and asked that he be served a meal.
His servants were puzzled. "What is this that you have done?" they asked. "For a living child, you fasted and wept. And when the child dies, you arise and eat bread?"
King David explained to them that so long as there was still a breath of life in his son, he hoped that G-d would see his fasting and his repentance, and answer his prayers. "But now? What reason have I to fast?" he asked them. "Shall I revive my child and bring him back to life? Now, it remains only for me to join him (in the next world); he will not return to me, in this world!"
The verse tells us that King David then turned to comfort his wife in her sorrow.
The Tanach (Bible) is not a historical record, but a manual for life that is never outdated. It relates to us all the details of King David's reaction to his son's illness and his death in order to teach us a valuable lesson. Its teachings are practical and down-to-earth for men of flesh and blood, not for angels.
"Look forward," it tells us, "not to the past!"
If the child is sick, even if his life is hanging by a thread, pray, fast, repent, look for merits to win favor in the eyes of G-d, for He can always heal, can always redeem the seemingly doomed from the shadow of death. Perhaps He will deal graciously with you, and save you.
But if the child dies, despite your efforts to save him, rise up and comfort the others who share your bereavement, as King David comforted his wife. The very next verse tells us of the birth of a second child, who also reigned in Jerusalem: King Solomon.
We all know of King David as the psalmist, full of emotion and compassion for others. His conduct in relation to his son's illness and death arose not from heartlessness, but from unspeakable courage and self-control. He was able to direct his feelings and powers into constructive channels, even in the face of bereavement!
This, too, is the pattern which the Sages established for the entire nation during the three weeks of mourning for the loss of the Sanctuary in Jerusalem. Each year, we relive days from the moment the walls were breached, until the final destruction of the Temple on the ninth of Av. This was the period that led up to our national loss, when there was still so much to be gained, had our prayers been accepted on High. The decree might have been rescinded, and so many lives might have been spared, and so much suffering might have been avoided.
However, once the Temple fell, once its beams and walls were consumed by the flames, the degree of our mourning becomes less, not more.
The Ninth of Av is a day of intense mourning, of fasting and weeping and eulogy, when, like King David, we sit low, on the earth. On this day we read the Scroll of Lamentations and mourn the great losses which this day commemorates.
However, from noontime on the Ninth of Av – the hour when the torches were set to the Temple – we no longer sit on the ground. When night falls, the fast, and many of the laws of mourning no longer apply, even though it was at this time that the fires in the Temple spread and reached the peak of their destructive force.
As King David explained centuries beforehand; "And now that he has died, what reason have I to fast? Shall I be able to revive him yet now?"
After the Ninth of Av, we look forward, to the future. The coming month, Elul, follows the month during which the Temple was destroyed. This is the final month of the Jewish year, a month of personal reckoning and repentance. If we use it to correct past errors, Heaven regards our conduct for the entire year as being rectified. Our repentance this month, and our improved conduct, bring blessing not only on each of us individually, but also add to the collective merit of the Jewish People, who will hopefully be found worthy of the ultimate redemption, may it come speedily, in our days.