Today is Tisha Be'av, the ninth day of the 11th month on the Hebrew calendar. It is our 9/11, a date that is seared into the national consciousness because of the disasters that have befallen the Jewish people.
Or is it? Sure, Jews around the world gathered in synagogues last night and recited the Book of Lamentations in an evocative and melancholy tune. And today we deny ourselves food and drink until nightfall, despite the heat and exhaustion. We remember the Temple that once stood on the Mount, and dream of the day when it will soon stand there once again in all its glory.
But is that really all that Tisha Be'av is about? Clearly, the purpose of this fast day is not merely to shed a pound or two, sweat profusely or denounce the ancient Romans for sacking Jerusalem.
As Maimonides writes in his compendium of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, (Laws of Fast Days 5:1): "There are days that all of Israel fasts because of the troubles that occurred on them in order to awaken their hearts and open the paths of repentance." In other words, the act of fasting is a means, not an end. On a day such as Tisha Be'av, if we starve ourselves silly but continue to heap scorn and abuse on our fellow Jews, we have lost sight of the forest by focusing solely on the trees, missing the point entirely.
And that is why I contend that even if there are millions of Jews who are not eating today, Tisha Be'av is still very much a forgotten fast, because its true meaning is so widely unheeded.
Take, for example, the contemptible remarks made this past Saturday night by Rabbi Shalom Cohen, a member of the Shas party's Council of Torah Sages. Speaking at an event in Jerusalem, Cohen had the audacity to declare that Israel's religious Zionist community is "Amalek," a reference to the archetypal enemy of the Jewish people that must be eradicated.
"Are these people even Jews?" he asked rhetorically.
Cohen's words were not only vile, but they were also supremely ironic. For a man whose first name is Shalom, or peace, to make such comments is paradoxical, to say the least. Secondly, Cohen heads the Porat Yosef Yeshiva, which is located in Jerusalem's Old City right across from the Temple Mount.
Each day, when he looks out his window and sees the golden Dome of the Rock perched on the mount where the Temple once stood, Cohen has a visible reminder right in front of him of what the Jewish people lost two millennia ago because of internal bickering and senseless hatred.
Nonetheless, that didn't stop him from demonizing an entire sector of Israeli society just 48 hours before the onset of Tisha Be'av.
But loathsomeness is not the sole province of religious extremists such as Cohen. There are plenty of equally vicious voices to be found on Israel's secular Left, such as that of Haaretz's Gideon Levy.
On July 4 Levy wrote the following: "One day the Palestinian people will rise up against their occupiers. I hope this day comes soon."
Asserting that "The regimes against which most of the Arab nations are rebelling were generally less brutal than the regime of the Israeli occupation," Levy went on to say that, "as with other unjust and evil regimes, which are always destined to fall, this regime also will fall."
One is of course free to agree or disagree with Israel's policies in Judea and Samaria. But to suggest that the Jewish state is "evil" or that it is worse than Gaddafi's Libya or Mubarak's Egypt is morally obscene and politically obtuse.
Cohen and Levy's rhetoric is precisely the kind of divisive muck that splits the nation, fuels hatred and weakens our collective resolve. It fans the flames, rather than quells them, which is exactly what this country does not need.
20 centuries ago, those very same flames rose up and consumed the Temple on Tisha Be'av, resulting in the exile of the Jewish people to the four corners of the earth.
As Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the famed Netziv of Volozhin, noted in his introduction to the Book of Genesis, the generation that witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans was punished "due to the baseless hatred in their hearts towards each other."
"They suspected," he wrote, "that those who disagreed with them on religious matters were Sadducees or heretics. This brought them to misguided bloodshed and many other evils until the Temple was destroyed."
Sound familiar? All around us, the threats to Israel's existence are growing ever more perilous. With Syria in flames, Egypt in chaos and Iran moving ever closer to the nuclear threshold, now is not the time for Israelis to be tearing one another apart.
So while fasting today, take a moment to consider one simple thought: now more than ever Israel must find a way to stand together, united as one in the justness of our cause.
That is the essence of Tisha Be'av. All the rest is commentary.