Schooled by Isaiah: The Lessons of Tisha B’Av

By ILANA KRYGIER LAPIDES

Tisha b’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish year, begins at sunset July 29. While most Jewish holidays are ultimately celebratory (“They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat…”), Tisha b’Av is a rare exception. The ninth (tisha) day of the month of Av marks the destruction of the First Temple in 587 BCE and the Second Temple in 70 CE, as well as numerous other tragedies including: Bar Kokhba’s fallen rebellion (135 CE); the expulsion of Jews from Spain (1492); the Warsaw Ghetto liquidation (1942); and the bombing of the Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires (1994). We remember and commemorate this solemn day with a 25-hour fast.

On the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av, known as Hazon Yeshayahu, we read from the first chapter of Isaiah. It is a disturbing passage in which the prophet Isaiah, speaking the words of G-d, rebukes the Jews for their failure to act honestly and compassionately.

“Alas, she has become a harlot, the faithful city that was filled with justice, where righteousness dwelt – but now murderers!” (Is. 1:21).

Evidently, the Israelites have been going through the motions of devoutness while acting immorally in their regular lives. This strategy fails miserably; nothing makes G-d angrier than to see people treating other people poorly: “What need have I of all your sacrifices? Says the Lord. “I am sated with burnt offerings. Stop bringing meaningless offerings!” (Is. 1:11-13).

It becomes clear that our role in Judaism is to take care of one another even more than to worship G-d: “Wash yourselves clean; Put your evil doings away from My sight. Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow.” (Is. 1:16-17).

Isaiah’s message is timely in hundreds of ways. A topical example: Wearing masks. Public health experts have been fairly consistent in their messaging that wearing a mask in public, in addition to frequent hand-washing and social distancing, is the primary way to reduce the risk of spreading COVID.

We may feel fine, but there is a chance we are carrying a deadly virus that could destroy the life of someone we encounter: A young mother whose child is immune-compromised, the man at the grocery store going home to his elderly mother, the teenager whose little sister has asthma. The truth is, we just don’t know, and what we don’t know can kill us.

How is this the message of Isaiah? Because wearing a mask doesn’t much safeguard the person who is wearing it. The only reason to wear a mask is to protect those around us. It is a gift we give, from the goodness and wisdom of our hearts, to our neighbors, friends, family, and ultimately, the whole world.

Our community, and Canadians in general, are well-known for compassion and caring. Canadians treasure universal healthcare and prioritize education because, even if we are perfectly healthy and don’t have kids, it is in all of our best interests that our nation be healthy and educated. Our country is made up of a diverse group of people who, in all the ways that matter, are a lot like us; we look out for each other. We are a family and we are our brothers’ keepers.

Whether or not you observe Tisha b’Av, think about all that has befallen our people. Remember the loss and the sadness and how we want better for ourselves and our descendants. And when that day is done, continue to wear your mask in public to protect G-d’s children all around you. We are deserving of this gift, it keeps on giving, and it is the least we can do.


Ilana Krygier Lapides
Ilana Krygier Lapides

Ilana Krygier Lapides is a Jewish educator and storyteller. She is currently attending rabbinic school at the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute and will be ordained in June 2021.