Next week we mark the 17th of Tamuz, beginning a three-week period of remembering and mourning for the destruction of the Temple and the exile from Jerusalem that culminates with the fast of the 9th of Av.
For some, there is something deeply incongruous in perpetuating this ritual mourning period for a people that has returned to its homeland, and to Jerusalem. Is this commemoration of destruction really still warranted? Why should our pain and memory be marked in the time of our national rebirth in the same way it was marked during our national dispersion? This question is usually presented as a challenge to the way we continue to observe Tisha Be’av, but it perhaps reflects an even larger question about what place longing should have for a people that has come home. For centuries, the Jewish people longed for Zion, keeping Jerusalem in our prayers and our consciousness well before the idea of national self-determination in our ancient homeland became an active political program. Throughout the many years of exile, the dreams of return sustained us, and mourning over the loss of Jerusalem was both natural and a unifying force for our people.
But what do we do with the sense of yearning our people has cultivated and maintained over centuries when the underlying causes for it ostensibly have been removed? What happens when the generation of Moses that was promised the land but never entered it is replaced by the Joshua generation, for whom Israel is not just a promise but an actual, physical home? Indeed, despite all of our contemporary challenges, the Jewish people – both in our sovereign homeland and in many communities outside it – is thriving and vibrant. What place is there for the mindset or modalities of an existence in exile, when Jews feel increasingly in charge of their national destiny? There have been several answers to this challenge across the Jewish world.
For some the longing for Zion has been replaced by the sense of a national mission to protect the miracle of Israel’s establishment from the forces that remain aligned against it. In this model, we have indeed fulfilled our dream: The Jewish people has come home. But the calling of this generation is to shield that dream from those who wish to threaten it physically or to undermine its moral legitimacy. Destruction is still a possibility, and the memory of past exile serves as a warning against its recurrence.
For others, the longing for Zion has been transformed into a longing for normalcy. The anomaly of Jewish exile has ended, but in its place has come a craving for an existence like all other nations. In this view, our “chosenness” as a people, the uniqueness of our story, has only been a curse.
What the return to Zion offers is a plea to bring Israel out of the category in which the Prophet Bilaam places us in this week’s parsha, of being a “nation that dwells alone.”
A third response has been to channel our longing for return to Zion into a longing for a particular kind of Zion: One in which the Temple has been rebuilt, one in which we are finally at peace with our neighbors, or one in which the best of Jewish values and traditions are reflected in the public life, culture and policy of the state.
Yet another response has been to remove Jewish longing from being a collective experience and to shift it into an individual mission for personal fulfillment. The national objective of rebirth has been met, but the quest for personal achievement, the pursuit of a rich and meaningful Jewish life within our families, communities and selves, continues.
What these and other responses share is a respect for the continuing place of longing in the Jewish condition. German Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig was one of numerous Jewish thinkers who wrote about how a sense of exile and longing is embedded as part of the essence of the Jewish story. We may live in Zion, but we remain forever removed somehow from that mythical Zion that exists in our imagination.
From Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, from the call to Avraham to leave his father’s house, from the wanderings and unsettledness of our people’s history, from the unfulfilled love of the Song of Songs, our tradition embodies a deep acceptance of – even a commitment to – an abiding state of incompleteness.
Our tradition embraces the idea that some sense of brokenness, of want, is not just fundamental to who we are, it is in some way our contribution to the partnership we have with the Divine. In some deep way, a striving for completeness from a state of inherent interminable incompleteness is the one thing we can offer the Almighty, who by definition is without blemish.
Our imperfections and the pain of living unredeemed lives are in this sense both a source of deep sorrow and of profound strength. It is a constant reminder of the journey left to make, and that the process of reaching for our better personal and collective selves is never ending.
There is always a place for Jewish longing, because we are a people defined more by our aspirations than by our achievements. There is a place for longing, even if we embrace the many blessings of coming home.