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America needs a holiday of self-reflection

Americans can learn from the Jews: turn inward, and ask hard questions.

Shoes are piled outside the scene of a mass shooting, including Ned Peppers bar, Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019, in Dayton, Ohio. Several people in Ohio have been killed in the second mass shooting in the U.S. in less than 24 hours, and the suspected shooter is also deceased, police said. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

The summer of 2019 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the first time that I ever heard of Tisha B’Av.

It happened at the Eisner Camp, which I wrote about last week.

Tisha B’Av is the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av. It is this Sunday.

It is a fast day that commemorates the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, and the second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE.

It is also the day, which, by sheer historical coincidence, almost every other bad thing that happened in Jewish history occurred:

  • 132 CE: the Romans crushed the Bar Kochba revolt, essentially ending Judean independence.
  • 1095: Pope Urban II proclaimed what was to be the first Crusade, which in its first month claimed the lives of ten thousand Jews.
  • 1290: King Edward I signed the Edict of Expulsion, which expelled the Jews from England.
  • 1492: the Jews of Spain departed from their homeland, beginning the Sephardic Diaspora.

So, let’s just say that Tisha B’Av is a “Debbie Downer” of a Jewish holiday.

And yet, Jewish summer camps revived Tisha B’Av. It was one of the most important contributions that Jewish camping made to the Jewish calendar!

It was a paradox: enforced glumness in the midst of summer joy.

“OK, kids. Today we mourn for the temple. No, not your temple in Great Neck. I mean the Temple. And, while we’re at it, all the other stuff that happened to us.”

Let’s talk about me and Tisha B’Av. As we say in Facebook land: “Relationship: complicated.”

On the one hand: when I am in Jerusalem on that date, I love to go to the Western Wall and hear the chanting of the book of Lamentations.

That is, even though above the Western Wall plaza there is the beautifully renovated Jewish Quarter.

The Jerusalem streets are teeming with people, with new construction everywhere, a vibrant and exuberant city with soaring real estate prices.

So, why are we still weeping over ancient Jerusalem?

Do we modern Jews still need Tisha B’Av?


Not to mourn our historical disasters.

But, rather, to remember our failures.

You mean the destruction of the Temple was our fault?

Of course. We’re talking the Jews here.

The ancient rabbis came up with a moral laundry list for why Jerusalem was destroyed.

A short list:

  • Because its people profaned Shabbat
  • Because they neglected to say the Sh’ma
  • Because they stopped bringing their children to study with the sages. .
  • Because they lost their sense of shame.
  • Because they did not admonish each other; they turned their faces away and saw no evil.
  • Because of sinat hinam, free-flowing, baseless hatred.

Any contemporary revival of Tisha B’Av would need to ask us, as Jews, to focus on our failings as a community. Those failures are spiritual, and ethical.

But, not just the Jews. Here, we have something to model for America.

Consider the American civil calendar: Veterans Day. Thanksgiving. Presidents’ Day. Memorial Day. The Fourth of July.

What do we lack?

A day of national reflection.

An American Tisha B’Av, without the destruction.

Each of the ethical sins that supposedly destroyed Jerusalem exists in America today.

  • We have lost our sense of shame. We need to regain our shame — of what our country has become. A culture of entitlement, in which we insist on the very letter of the law when it comes to our rights, and ignore our responsibilities for the common good.
  • We do not admonish each other. We turn our faces away, and we fail to see the evil in our midst. A culture of guns. Pistols, I can understand. Hunting rifles, I can understand (it’s not my thing, but I can understand it). Military style rifles? I cannot understand this.
  • The sin of sinat chinam, gratuitous, free-flowing hatred. A culture of xenophobia. Remember the dark side of the Force from Star Wars? Xenophobia, in all its permutations, is the dark side of the American force.

We make excuses for the violent evil in our midst.

It must be because of video games.

Look, I don’t love the violence in the entertainment industry. I have long wondered if that has numbed us to violence, whether it has created second hand culture as lethal as second hand smoke.

But, if media violence was the culprit, then all of our children – mostly our boys – would have long ago become psychopaths.

And, if violent popular culture was the culprit, it is as prevalent in other countries as it is in the United States.

Why don’t those countries have mass shootings?

It must be because of mental illness.


  • First, it stigmatizes the mentally ill.
  • Second, other countries have as much mental illness as America does.
  • Third, women are also mentally ill; why is it that only the mentally ill males know how to get military grade weapons?
  • Fourth, it is the mentally ill that are most likely to become victims of violence; not its perpetrators.

The American national calendar needs a day upon which we can reflect on what we are, what we have become, and what we need to become our true vision of the American self.

I go back to our malignant nationalism, and I turn to the words of Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, who was the first woman to have served in both houses of Congress.

She spoke these words in 1950. I found them in a wonderful new collection of civic “sermons” on American responsibility and patriotism.

Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the principles of Americanism. The right to criticize. The right to hold unpopular beliefs. The right to protest. The right of independent thought. The exercise of these rights should not cost one single American citizen his reputation or his right to a livelihood nor should he be in danger of losing his reputation or livelihood merely because he happens to know someone who holds unpopular beliefs. Who of us does not? Otherwise none of us could call our own souls our own.

Oh, by the way.

Margaret Chase Smith was a Republican.

Where are you, Sen. Smith, now that we need you?