My latest blog post for The Jewish Journal:
“They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.”
According to the late comedian Alan King, that’s the explanation of most Jewish holidays.
It’s particularly relevant to the fast day of Tisha B’Av, which is a few days from now. On Tisha B’Av, we mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples, along with other tragedies that have befallen our people.
But this year, the approach of Tisha B’Av has me thinking of — Dunkirk. A big-budget movie about it is scheduled for release next summer.
If you’ve never heard of Dunkirk, or what makes it significant, don’t worry. About half of the U.S. population thinks that World War II occurred shortly after the Civil War. You’re way ahead of the game if you can find France on a map.
In May 1940, the German Army trapped 10 divisions of the British Army at Dunkirk, an area in the North of France that was directly across the English Channel. Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to destroy the British forces, which had no way to escape from the French coast back to England. If the Luftwaffe had succeeded, Germany might have won the war.
Instead, the British people set sail in their own private boats — fishing boats, cargo ships, rowboats, anything that could make it across the channel and back — to rescue “their boys” from the beaches of Dunkirk. Almost 800 boats made the trip, over and over, under heavy fire from German planes and artillery. They rescued almost 340,000 British soldiers from certain death. Many of the rescuers died in their heroic mission.
By military standards, the Battle of Dunkirk was a crushing defeat. But “Dunkirk!” became a symbol of British people’s courage, unity, and determination to prevail against any odds.
I’m sure you see where this is going. If anything on earth has preserved the Jewish people for millennia, it’s courage, unity, and determination to prevail against any odds. Tisha B’Av, just like Dunkirk, takes something bad and turns it into something good.
According to our tradition, the first tragedy to occur on Tisha B’Av was in 1313 BCE when the Israelites failed to trust God during the Exodus. As a result, they had to wander for another 38 years before entering the promised land. On Tisha B’Av in 423 BCE, the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple, and on the same date in 70 CE, the Romans destroyed the Second Temple. It was on that date in 1290 CE that our people were expelled from England and on the same date in 1492 that they were expelled from Spain.
We must allow tradition a bit of poetic license, since archaeology finds no evidence of the 1313 event and says that the First Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE instead of 423 BCE. Only about 2,000 of us were expelled from England, peacefully, and the Spanish expulsion edict wasn’t issued on Tisha B’Av. The value of a religiously helpful story trumps (pardon the expression) a few minor factual inaccuracies.
Tisha B’Av, just like Dunkirk, shows how a people can turn tragedy into victory by telling a new story about it and giving it a new meaning. Instead of being a weakness, the tragedy becomes a source of strength:
“A story told by English Jews, perhaps apocryphal, tells of a prominent nineteenth-century British politician who was walking near a synagogue on Tisha B’Av and heard wailing coming from inside. He looked in and was informed that the Jews were mourning the loss of their ancient Temple. Deeply impressed, the politician remarked, ‘A people who mourn with such intensity the loss of their homeland, even after two thousand years, will someday regain that homeland.’” (Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy, p. 669)
What applies to groups also applies to individuals. You can turn your personal tragedies into victories by telling yourself a new story about them: a story in which you are no longer a passive victim but are instead a survivor, who suffered but became a better and stronger person as a result.
They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat (just not on Tisha B’Av).