Originally written in 2013, shared again in advance of Tisha B’Av, 5776 (2016)
With the onset of the “Three Weeks,” the mourning period for the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple that culminates with the fast day of Tisha b’Av, the contemporary Jewish sensibility faces its annual dilemma of dissonance between ritual and reality.
Of all the significant periods on the Jewish calendar, the Three Weeks seem the most problematic. Considering Jewish reality today, how is it possible to truly mourn the ancient hurban, the destruction? The simultaneous emergence of a sovereign Israel and of the most powerful and accepted Diaspora community in Jewish history has created an unprecedented moment of triumph.
There seems, then, something contrived, even coercive, in the ritualized grief of the Three Weeks. Sitting on the ground at the Wall and chanting Lamentations on Tisha b’Av while being protected by soldiers of a Jewish state, with Jews gathered from around the world, appears to be an inherent contradiction. The crowds of young people socializing in the plaza on Tisha b’Av eve seem to have it right: Enough mourning! We’ve survived! More than survived: thrived.
Our prayer life hasn’t internalized the transformation of Jewish life. We continue to pray for the ingathering of the exiles, even as millions of Jews have come home and the exile has ended, replaced by a voluntary Diaspora.
We continue to pray for the restoration of the Temple and its service, even as most Jews today find the notion of animal sacrifices repellent. And we continue to wish those sitting shiva that they be comforted “among the mourners of Zion” even as we no longer mourn for Zion but celebrate its resurrection.
How, then, to deal with the Three Weeks? Perhaps the appropriate response isn’t mourning as much as sobriety, a heightened awareness of our collective failures.
The Rabbis cited mutual hatred among Jews as the sin responsible for the destruction of the Temple. In contemporary terms, that translates into our failure to function as a people that appreciates its diversity and can manage its disagreements with mutual respect for each other’s visions and fears.
The basis for an individual’s spiritual life is humility, awareness that we are transient beings whose undertsanding of the world is at best incomplete. That same insight is the basis for a healthy national life. No part of the Jewish people can claim to be sole heir of Jewish history. Those who believe that their community is the only repository of Jewish wisdom, and that other communities are empty vessels with little to contribute to our growth, risk a spiritually fatal arrogance.
The Three Weeks remind us that we are a survivor people. But do we behave as a survivor people? In one sense, certainly: Jews emerged from the Holocaust determined to undo the powerlessness of exile, and that effort has achieved extraordinary success.
But in our relations with each other, we have failed to internalize the wisdom of a survivor people, which knows that all our competing certainties vanish before the abyss.
We experienced the brutal wisdom of the abyss briefly, in May 1967, as Arab armies converged on Israel’s borders and Jews around the world shared a common dread of another holocaust. The unity that Jews expressed in those weeks led to the victory of the Six-Day War, the resurrection of Soviet Jewry and the political empowerment of American Jewry. The Jewish world we live in today is largely a creation of that brief moment of unity in May 1967.
But the Six-Day War, of course, also opened the way for Jewish strife. The argument over land for peace – if that option ever becomes possible – cannot be silenced by appeals to Jewish unity.
Still, there are ways of managing our schisms that would help us remain one people. Just as a body feels the pain that affects any of its limbs, a healthy people knows how to grieve for the wounds of its separate communities. In Israel today, there remain open wounds, inflicted by fellow Jews. Many still quietly grieve for the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, for our descent into fratricide – a grief that some on the right have resented as politically motivated.
And while there is no moral comparison between the two events, many Israelis still grieve for the uprooting of thousands of Jews from their homes in Gaza’s Gush Katif, a trauma that has been confined to the religious Zionist community but should be shared by all parts of the Jewish people, regardless of political orientation.
The Wall itself, symbol of Jewish unity in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, has become a symbol of our collective dysfunctionality, hurban of our cohesiveness. As the monthly confrontations over Women of the Wall attest, we can no longer even pray together. But we can at least try to pray in proximity to each other – and the Israeli government has, for the first time, offered space at the Wall for egalitarian prayer. That too is a form of healing.
Finally, one spiritually useful way to mark the Three Weeks is for each Jew to consider the community he or she most resents, and then contemplate a positive Jewish value embodied by that community. Think of the settlers’ love of the land of Israel, of left-wingers’ love of peace, of the anti-Zionist Satmar ladies distributing kosher food to any Jewish patient in New York hospitals, of Reform rabbis struggling to keep Jews in an open society Jewish. Without compromising your convictions, allow yourself to feel a measure of gratitude toward ideological opponents who are trying in their way to be worthy of the Jewish story.
The Three Weeks are an opportunity to pause in our communal chatter, our endless arguments over morality and survival and tradition and innovation, and ask ourselves: Is this the Jewish people we want to be?
Enough mourning for the sake of mourning. Let us turn the Three Weeks into a time of Jewish healing.