What Are We Mourning For?

Our mourning is not over what was, but over what is. The way to mend our situation is not by searching for culprits but by seeking the good.

Av 5783; July 2023

We have been mourning on the Ninth of Av for over two thousand years. We do not “commemorate” the events of the Churban; we do not hold Memorial Day ceremonies for the Temple’s destruction, but rather sit and mourn. We remove our shoes. We sit on the ground. We fast. We weep. In short: we mourn.

What is the meaning of acts of mourning performed so long after the event? After all, the Churban occurred in a different and distant era, of which we have no tangible memory. The loves and hates of people who lived then are long gone. The kingdoms that ruled the world back then have disappeared, and we can hardly say that we continue to experience any sorrow over events in the ancient past.

Drawing lessons is always possible, and speaking about baseless hatred is worthy, but what is the point of mourning over something we no longer remember?

A Memorial Day focusing on drawing lessons from the past, as customary in other contexts and other communities, would have been understandable. Drawing lessons is always possible, and speaking about baseless hatred is worthy, but what is the point of mourning over something we no longer remember?

Some might say that the fast of the Ninth of Av has become part of our religious devotion. It is part of our service before Hashem. However, it seems that Zechariah the prophet’s words are directed against this view: “The word of Hashem came to me, saying: Speak to all the people of the land and to the priests, saying, ‘When you fasted and mourned on the fifth and seventh months these seventy years, was it actually for Me that you fasted? When you eat and drink, do you not eat for yourselves and do you not drink for yourselves?’” (Zechariah 7:4-6).

Those who turned to the prophet Zechariah to ask if they should continue fasting might have thought that the fast had become sanctified and part of their Divine service. Hashem, however, tells Zechariah that this is mistaken. The fast is a human need and for the benefit of humans. Hashem has no interest in the fast per se.

It thus seems that the mourning is not about such or another historical event but rather an expression of sorrow in the present. Our mourning over the destruction is not about what was but what is. We mourn the current situation, not what happened over 2000 years ago.


The Churban is not a one-time event that happened and ended; it is a constant and ongoing state. Our mourning is for the constant state we are in because the gaping hole caused by the destruction is forever present, every day and every hour. We cannot be engulfed in mourning and darkness all year; we must continue living. Rabbi Yehoshua said to the Pharisees who wished to abstain from eating meat and drinking wine after the Churban, “Come and I will tell you: It is impossible not to mourn at all, for the decree has already been issued, and it is impossible to mourn excessively, for a decree is not issued upon the public unless the majority of the public can stand it’ (Bava Basra 60b).

Through mourning, we emphasize that our current state is abnormal, anomalous; we live in an imperfect reality that does not reflect our true reality

Therefore, we dedicate one day a year to remembering that our condition is flawed and that something fundamental in our existence is missing. The mourning is, in fact, an outlook on our present. Through mourning, we emphasize that our current state is abnormal, anomalous; we live in an imperfect reality that does not reflect our true reality.

Our mourning is over Jerusalem: “How does the that was filled with people sit in solitude” (Eicha 1:1). Our mourning is over the fact that she who is supposed to be a light unto the nations, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation; she who was supposed to be an example and model for the entire world, sits alone as a widow, despised. We do not weep for the past but chant a dirge for the present.

Our mourning awakens us to the fact that we must never become accustomed to the current situation, to the condition of destruction, and believe it is normal. It reminds us that we are capable of much more.


Mourning reflects the height of our aspirations. So long as we mourn, we tell ourselves that we can reach far more than what we have now. We remind ourselves that as long as we have not returned to conduct ourselves as Hashem’s people and the Divine Presence is not within us, we are still in a state of destruction.

When the priests and the people asked, “Shall I weep in the fifth month and abstain, as I have done these many years?” (Zechariah 7:3), Hashem answered that weeping is not the goal, but rather an expression of the people’s appreciation of what is missing. Hashem continues to say that He has always wanted to do good for the Jewish People, but they refused to listen.

The purpose of mourning, the recognition of what is missing, should be the awareness that we are capable of more. Hashem wants to do good for us if only we are willing to listen. When we embrace this recognition, the need, and the capability to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, these very days will turn into joy and happiness: we remind ourselves of what we can be, and the reminder itself works to achieve the final goal.


The prophet continues to tell the Jewish People that the correction for the destruction does not come through seeking culprits:

These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgment in your courts; do not plot evil against each other, and do not love to swear falsely. I hate all this, declares Hashem (Zechariah 8:16-17).

Redemption will not come from quarreling with one another, which we seem so preoccupied with, and blaming each other for the destruction. Instead, Hashem tells us, it will come by taking personal, private, and communal responsibility to elevate the nation, improve its condition, render true judgments, and seek out the good.

Thus says the Lord of hosts: The fast of the fourth month, the fast of the fifth, the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth shall be seasons of joy and gladness and cheerful feasts for the house of Judah: therefore love truth and peace” (Zechariah 8:19).

Picture: Rembrandt, Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, 1630

One thought on “What Are We Mourning For?

  • This is a good article. Why are the Rabbaim, the self appointed “Gedolim”, not publicly distancing themselves from a demagogue who has built his power with the tactitcs of “divide and conquer” ???? Appealing to spiritual elevation is ambiguous. The solution of Israel’s problems will not come from checking the Mezuzot,, but, like the last Pasuk of today’s Haftara
    אֲנִ֣י ה״ עֹ֥שֶׂה חֶ֛סֶד מִשְׁפָּ֥ט וּצְדָקָ֖ה בָּאָ֑רֶץ כִּֽי־בְאֵ֥לֶּה חָפַ֖צְתִּי נְאֻם־ה״׃ {ס} 

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