At sunset tonight, Jews around the world begin the commemoration of Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av. Observed as a fast, the ninth is the date on which the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed in 586 BCE and 70 CE, respectively. Other cataclysmic events have shaken the Jews on the ninth. King Edward I banished the Jews from England in 1290 CE, an act that remained in effect for for 350 years. And, the Spanish Expulsion Edict took effect that day in 1492, forcing 200,000 Jews into exile from the only home they had ever known.
While most Jews no longer observe the holiday, nor are probably even aware that it begins tonight, Tisha B’Av teaches an important lesson. Tradition holds that the Second Temple was destroyed due to “causeless hatred.” That hatred was manifested behaviorally by violence and property destruction.
That phrase –”causeless hatred” — came back to me when my book group recently discussed Comedy in a Minor Key, by Hans Keilson. Translated into English over sixty years after its original publication in 1947, Comedy tells the story of Wim and Marie, a young Dutch couple who shelter the Jewish Nico from the Nazis. The courage these two people show in the face of certain severe punishment is stunning, and stands out against the mundane details of their daily lives. At one point, Nico dies from pneumonia, and Wim and Marie realize that they have to dispose of the body without drawing attention to themselves. In the dark of night Wim and the local doctor carry the body from the house and place it under a park bench. Unfortunately, Marie has neglected to remove an identifying laundry mark from the pajamas in which Nico is clad. This error causes Wim and Marie to flee their home and go into hiding. As if their situation hadn’t been fraught with danger enough before, they now learn just what it feels like to be pursued by Nazis and their sympathizers. They understand only too well just how out of control hatred can become.
The book group discussion revived a memory of another conversation. Many years ago, soon after Joel and I moved to Worcester, our next-door neighbor, Jane, invited us to attend the annual book and author dinner at Clark University, where she served on the library’s board of trustees. She was convinced that I needed some intellectual stimulation, given that I had two children under the age of two. (She was probably correct on that score.) We went to the dinner program, most of which I don’t remember except that three of the four speakers were dull enough to put an insomniac to sleep, and the fourth was Stephen Birmingham, author of Our Crowd, The Right People, and Certain People – and many more books since.
At one point during the evening, Jane’s husband Harry turned to me and said, “I hope that if another Holocaust were to happen, that Jane and I would have the courage to hide you.” (For the life of me, I can’t remember how the topic came up. Had the speaker been talking about the Holocaust?),
His statement took my breath away. I mumbled a reply that I did, indeed, hope that they would find it in their hearts to shelter us if, God forbid, it should happen again. On one hand, I was horrified to think that society could devolve to the point of genocide after the lessons of the Holocaust. Hadn’t we learned enough from the past? (I have since grown much more cynical.) I was also shocked to know that my neighbors had been thinking about this subject — upon our moving next door?
On the other hand, I was impressed that this very WASP gentleman and his wife had actually thought about a situation that most people probably don’t think about.
I learned many years later that Harry had served at the Battle of the Bulge and had been awarded the Bronze Star. He had been in Europe and seen with his own eyes what causeless hatred can do.
Today we are seeing all over the globe the effects of virulent hatred, fueled by prejudice, racism, self-righteous religiosity, xenophobia, and general intolerance.
Perhaps a day of fasting and reflection might be in order.