The Celebrate Israel Festival on May 31 at Pier 94, slated to be the largest gathering to date of Israeli-Americans in New York.
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.
The second form of zikaron – obligation – has two aspects. The first demands active remembrance of the destruction: leaving a spot of the house unpainted; leaving over a part of one’s meal; making mention of Jerusalem in tefillah and Birkat HaMazon – direct, concrete demonstrations of the diminution of our joy, of our day-to-day “normalcy.” The well-known wedding custom of breaking a glass under the chuppah is likewise derived from this demand.
Our actions proclaim that we will never forget the terrible tragedy; that the actual tragedy remains as real to us as it was to the poor souls whose eyes bore witness to its horror.
Beyond the obligation to perform mitzvot in the same manner in which they were performed in the days of the Mikdash (in order to always make real and immediate the Mikdash experience) there is also an injunction to perform only those mitzvot that were performed in Eretz Yisrael during Temple days. Jeremiah exclaims: “Set thee up marks (tziyunim), make thee guide posts (tamrurim)” – markings and posts that will remind us of the paths we left behind in the land of Israel. And which, therefore, mark the way back, the way of return. For it is by separating terumot and ma’aserot even in our own land that we remember how to live in the land.
Chazal established three types of remembrances to help us to cope with the perpetual state of mourning the Churban imposes upon us. The first are meant to invoke memories of Jerusalem throughout all of life’s experiences – from the mundane, such as eating, to religious obligations, such as praying, and even to the most joyous times of our lives, such as marriage. The lesson is clear – not only would we never be the same; we should never be the same.
So powerful is Jerusalem still that should our very memory of Jerusalem be diminished, we would be diminished as a nation, as a people.
Our past is an essential ingredient in who we are. Ironically, there is no future without the past; we cannot be transformed without remaining in some very profound way unchanged. Therefore, though we can no longer offer sacrifices at the Temple, we offer prayers as both remembrance and as sacrifice. We internalize the reality of the Temple so that our character and our actions as a nation continue to represent the reality of the Temple, keeping it a living, dynamic presence in our lives so that when it is rebuilt, we can return to it and reestablish the sacred rituals of the Temple as if they had never been interrupted.
But even concrete, physical acts are not enough. After all, our loss was not merely physical; it was spiritual. With the Churban we became a nation without Kohanim at our service, Levites at our songs. No more could we satisfy the requirements of the Three Pilgrimages or offer up sacrifices to God. No more does our Sanhedrin sit in authoritative judgment of the people, determining what is right and wrong according to Torah.
Our loss of spiritual vitality cannot be healed with mere physical acts.
There are days which are observed by all Israel as fasts because tragic events happened on them, the object being to stir hearts and open the way to repentance, and to remind us of our own evil deeds, and of our fathers’ deeds which were like ours, as a consequences of which these tragic afflictions came upon them and upon us. For as we remember these things we ought to repent and do good.
Rambam makes clear here that our rituals, observances, prohibitions, and restrictions are an important means of moving toward teshuvah. These actions must stimulate the heart and the mind to probe and analyze why these national calamities have befallen us – certainly they cannot be encounters with the impersonal forces of history – and, therefore, how we can be transformed by them.
After all, it means nothing to be merely victim – or beneficiary – of chance events and therefore, there can be nothing gained or lost from examining them. Mourning brings about teshuvah, which requires meaning. The loss that is mourned cannot be mere chance. It cannot be random.
The falling of a tree in a forest is meaningless without God – how much more so the falling of a leaf? Without God, death is meaningless. And life, too, must therefore be meaningless.
In such a horrible world, teshuvah would not only be impossible, it would be unnecessary.
Blessedly, such a worldview is not a Jewish worldview. God Himself prompts His nation to remember that when “It shall come to pass, when all these things come upon you, the blessings and the curse, which I have set before you and you shall return unto the Lord your God, and you shall obey His voice.”
The Jewish worldview is not nihilistic. There are no meaningless events because God is always present. Meaning and faith are possible. We have transgressed and rebelled. We have been punished. But return is possible. Teshuvah is possible. Our national mourning has a purpose.
With teshuvah and transformation as our goals, how do we go forward in the shadow of Churban? Remembrance turns our thoughts to the past, which only highlights our pain and our terrible loss. Where is our consolation?
Where it has always been and always must be: in God.
Our first and deepest solace resides in the fact that God is. Further, we find meaning in understanding that, like us, God mourns. He too feels bereft of His glory, and He too recognizes that Churban means an obstacle to complete service and a diminution of His splendor on earth.
When we went into exile, He too went into exile - shechinta b’galuta. Every place Jews have been exiled, God is with them.
God grieves and mourns with His people. He proclaims that He is with His children in their distress, lacking and missing their company, having been banished from His table. Which speaks to the heart of teshuvah – man is not alone.
According the R. Hayim of Volozhin, the ultimate reason for man’s prayer is to plead for the removal of the pain and agony caused above when man suffers below. Teshuvah is deeply meaningful because it not only heals us, it heals God as well. For this reason, God refers to every victory and salvation attained by Israel when calling upon Him as “My salvation.”
Is there a clearer statement that Israel’s salvation is His as well? “He will call upon Me and I will answer him. I am with him in distress, I will release him and I will honor him. With long life, I will satisfy him, and I will show him My salvation.”
God is with Israel in her distress.
If you prick us, do we not bleed? Yes. But as we grieve and mourn as a nation, as a people, our wounds our healed, the hurt of our souls is salved, and redemption awaits us. Us. Not just you. Not just me. Us. Together.
Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran serves as OU Kosher’s vice president of communications and marketing. His “Sometimes You Are What You Wear” was recently republished.
About the Author: Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, author and lecturer. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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