August 8, 2019

Mourning in a Rebuilt Jerusalem

Rabbi Haber

“Alas, she sits in solitude – the city that had been filled with people has become like a widow….  The roads of Zion are [as if in] mourning, for lack of festival pilgrims. All her gates are desolate….” (Lamentations 1:1,4)

“Console, O God, the mourners of Zion and the mourners of Jerusalem, and the city that is in sorrow, laid waste, scorned and desolate….” (Mincha service for Tisha b’Av)

Every year around this time, I find myself engaged in conversations and reading statements on the internet, with a recurring theme.  In this period of national mourning leading up to Tisha b’Av, many people are struck by what they see as great incongruence.  Texts like the above ones, which are traditionally recited in synagogues on Tisha b’Av, simply don’t seem relevant any longer. Indeed, reciting these texts in a rebuilt Jerusalem, capital of the sovereign Jewish state of Israel even seems out of touch with reality.

Also, every year around Yom HaAtzmaut time, I find myself engaged in conversations and reading statements on the internet, with a similar – but opposite – recurring theme.  At that time of year, many people (usually members of the non-Zionist haredi community, but sometimes also post-Zionist secular people) question how we can celebrate Israel’s independence, when there are so many problems, and so much that is wrong.

In truth, both arguments are correct – and that’s precisely why they’re both wrong!  We live in complex and confusing times.

To those who can’t celebrate on Yom HaAtzmaut, I respond with the arguments made by those who object to mourning on Tisha b’Av.  And for those who find it incongruous to mourn now, I offer the perspectives of those who didn’t celebrate back then.  Both viewpoints are true – and therefore, we must mourn on Tisha b’Av, just as we must celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut.  This is bewildering and paradoxical, but it’s the truth.

So how do we mourn a destroyed city that has already been rebuilt?

Undoubtedly, Tisha b’Av must be understood somewhat differently today than it was over centuries of exile.  But in truth, its meaning has changed throughout the ages as well.  It has never been only about the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.

Our rabbis (Mishna Taanit 4:6) list five different tragedies to be commemorated on Tisha b’Av, including events that happened both before and after the destruction of the two Temples.  Later in history, kinnot (elegies) written about other calamities were added to the Tisha b’Av liturgy.  Tisha b’Av is the day of collective national mourning, on which we focus on all the things that aren’t as they should be, everything that needs to be fixed.

In that spirit, here are four things I think are worth noticing, lamenting and pondering this Tisha b’Av:

  1.   We are blessed with a prosperous, powerful and stable country with a powerful army to protect us. Still, though, (as we were tragically reminded this morning with the murder of Dvir Sorek, may God avenge his memory) we still lose beloved Jews every year to terrorism and military attacks.  Each of these lives is precious, and we must mourn the loss.  We must also lament the fact that although we have a high degree of security, we still don’t have peace and we aren’t always able to protect every single person.
  2.   We are blessed with an independent Jewish state in our homeland, and approaching a demographic milestone as close to 50% of the Jews in the world live here. But that means that over half of our people are still in exile, and far too many of those are estranged from our nation or assimilating.  We must mourn every Jew who (consciously or not) opts out of participation in our nation, and do everything we can to bring them back in.
  3.   A well-known rabbinic adage (Yoma 9b) states that the second Temple was destroyed as a result of “baseless hatred” between Jews. I understand that statement to refer primarily to the different political and ideological factions at that time.
    The problem was not the disagreements themselves – those disputes are actually very important.  The problem was that rather than forcefully but respectfully deliberate the issues, the arguments descended into harsh mutual condemnations, and eventually to violence and bloodshed.  As we enter the second election season of 2019, I am deeply disturbed by the tone and content of much of the rhetoric, and I fear that we are still guilty of the type of “baseless hatred” that destroyed the Temple.  Maybe fasting and lamenting about this on Tisha b’Av can help us atone for this sin by learning how to passionately advocate for what we believe in without delegitimizing those who see things differently.  Maybe we can even learn to see the value in opposing points of view.
  1. And finally, we must still mourn the loss of the Temple itself. For many people, this is the most difficult thing – it seems so archaic and foreign, with descriptions of priests offering animal sacrifices and burning incense on sacred altars. But the more one studies the symbolism of the Temple and descriptions of it in the various sources, the it becomes clear that the Temple had so many other facets to it.  It was the pinnacle of holiness, where mortals can touch infinity.  It was the seat of justice where all people could expect to get a fair hearing.  It was the center of the nation, where millions gathered on the Festivals.  And it’s not only ours – it has the potential to unite all of humanity around these noble principles, ending wars forever (see Isaiah 2:1-4).
    Indeed, the Temple is so foreign to us that it’s almost impossible for us to relate to, let alone mourn its loss.  That, however, may be the biggest tragedy of all.

Our rabbis teach (Taanit 30b) that whoever mourns for Jerusalem will merit seeing it rebuilt.  Tisha b’Av is actually a great chance to remind ourselves of what we are lacking, so that we can take the necessary steps to improve things.  Let’s use the opportunity.


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