If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
– The Merchant of Venice, Act III, Scene I
While Shylock, in Shakespeare’s play, might have used the plural as a rhetorical device, his words speak to a greater truth about community and nation. When we look at a country and wonder why it behaves in the way it does – with charity, belligerence, etc. – we are seeing an entity functioning as an individual might, often driven by the same emotions, ethics and sense of justice.
It is plain, then, that there are times when the community functions as an individual, and other times when the individual is one with the community. At no time is this duality, this “individual in the communal/ communal in the individual” more evident than during times of national calamity or national mourning, times in which a Hollywood producer might feel the same personal anguish, the same tugging ache, as the farmer in a Northern Israel valley or the shopkeeper in South Africa.
The idea of communal grief, of national mourning, is, at first glance, illogical. After all, grief is singularly intense. Mourning, while often defined by ritual designed to transition from grief to “everyday-ness,” is likewise experienced alone. That being the case, what do we mean when we speak of “national mourning”?
Is there any calamity a nation suffers that so alters its fundamental nature as to be truly analogous to the emotional crisis the death of a loved one brings to an individual?
There may be among the family of nations another nation besides Israel that has endured transformative loss and risen again; but which among the nations has endured not one, not two, but multiple horrors – from pogroms, to the Holocaust, to the plight of the Refuseniks, to the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers ? Which nation, other than Israel, knows such pain? Which nation has known the grief caused by the destruction of our two Temples?
How we grieved and mourned after our First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians! Then Cyrus of Persia conquered the Babylonians. Our national character was redeemed when he allowed us to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Beit HaMikdash anew.
In 70 CE, the Second Temple was destroyed by soldiers of the Roman Empire. Exiled from the land God had promised us, we were reduced to a nation of wanderers, beggars and slaves.
How far we had fallen. We grieve our fall. We mourn our loss.
The purpose of mourning is teshuvah, redemption. But how could we possibly mourn such national calamity in a way that could bring about teshuvah? The destruction of the Second Temple, the Churban, changed the course of Jewish history and destiny, its repercussions having direct consequences on every aspect of our national and religious character.
The redemptive qualities of mourning demand our attention to the past, which is forever gone; to the future, where our hopes must reside; and to God, in whom all things are possible. These three qualities all come to bear on our response to the Churban. Avelut and tzaar – mourning- is a response to the past; zichronot, tziyunim, and semalim – memorials and remembrances – focus on the future; teshuvah and introspection focus on our relationship with God.
Isaiah teaches us to mourn and grieve the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple: “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad with her, all you that love her; Rejoice for joy with her, all you that mourn for her.” The Talmud teaches that “whoever mourns over Jerusalem merits to see her joy, and whoever does not mourn over Jerusalem does not see her joy.”
The first form of zikaron begins on the 17th of Tammuz, when the Three Weeks of mourning is ushered into our liturgical year and our remembrance of the destruction of God’s dwelling place on earth begins, to culminate in the soul-searing, mournful lamentations of Tisha B’Av. The pain and sorrow we experience during this period, the restraints we practice, reawaken but a glimmer of recollection for the tragedy that forms the backdrop for our customs of mourning.