The Midrash, in a famous passage in the introduction to Eikha Rabba, tells of God’s angst, as it were, following the Temple’s destruction, comparing Himself to the father of an only child who dies under his chuppa. God implored the prophet Yirmiyahu to call Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov and Moshe from their graves to weep on behalf of their descendants who had been driven into exile, and Yirmiyahu obliged. He went to the Makhpela Cave in Chevron, the burial site of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, and cried, “Arise, for the time has come when you are asked to appear before the Almighty.” The patriarchs asked Yirmiyahu why they needed to approach God, and Yirmiyahu untruthfully replied that he did not know. He pretended not to know, the Midrash comments, “because he was afraid that they might say, ‘This happened to our children in your times!’”
The Midrash’s account powerfully expresses the sense of uneasiness and pangs of guilt which Yirmiyahu experienced as he witnessed the horror of the fall of Jerusalem. As we know from Sefer Yirmiyahu, he suffered a great deal of torment as a result of his God-given role. He told the people the precise opposite of what they wanted to hear, clashing with the false prophets who earned the people’s support by giving favorable predictions. Yirmiyahu was imprisoned and tortured on the charge of treason, as he advocated the unpopular position of surrendering to the Babylonian Empire, as God had instructed. Seemingly, he did everything he could, faithfully conveying to the people every prophecy he received. And yet, a persistent, nagging thought weighed on his conscience: “This happened to our children in your times!” Ultimately, Yirmiyahu failed in his mission to avoid the churban by inspiring a change of heart among the people. And although he cannot necessarily be blamed for the catastrophe, he experienced pangs of guilt. He could not allow himself to simply say, “I warned them and they refused to listen; it’s their fault,” even though this was certainly true. He could not block from his mind the uncomfortable question of whether he could have perhaps done something differently in order to motivate the people and their leaders to change, if there was something he could have said, or should not have said, to be more effective. Yirmiyahu is certainly not to blame for the churban, and it does not appear that he blamed himself, but the Midrash’s account suggests that he could not fully absolve himself of accountability, either.
Tisha B’Av is perhaps the time for us to ask ourselves these uncomfortable questions, and to remember, “This happened to our children in your times!” Our state of exile is proof that we have been unworthy of complete redemption. Yirmiyahu’s response to the patriarch teaches that we cannot feel content and at ease with ourselves and the efforts we make, and cast the blame on the rest of the nation, who do not make those same efforts. Instead, we need to introspect and ask what else we could be doing in order for Am Yisrael to be once and for all deserving of our final redemption and the long-awaited return of the Beit Ha-mikdash.