Memory’s Comfort

Devarim | Tishah Be'av By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jul 28, 2001 / 5761 | Torah Commentary | Holidays Israel

Next week I will commemorate Tishah B’Av at Camp Ramah. Many a summer finds me vacationing in Vermont when the fast day comes. My isolation makes its observance doubly difficult. Judaism requires community. Our religious reserves quickly run dry when we go it alone. The presence of a minyan united by ritual not only generates an atmosphere of sanctity, it also inspires our own participation.

As a young college student, I was imprinted by Tishah B’Av at Ramah. The gravity of Jewish history was captured for me in the evening by the mournful music and hushed voices of a large congregation of kindred souls seated on the floor of the gym reading Eikhah by candlelight. Study, prayer and discussion covering the sweep of the Jewish experience, from the destruction of the Temples to the creation of modern Israel, marked the rhythm of the following day. The setting made fasting easy and appropriate.

Tishah B’Av does not catch us unawares. For the three Sabbaths before we recite in synagogue haftarot of reprimand. And the name for this week’s Sabbath – Shabbat Hazon, the Sabbath of Vision – comes from the first word of the stern admonition by Isaiah chosen as the haftarah and read to the melancholy cantillation of Eikhah. The word “vision” strikes the right note for Tishah B’Av: to ponder the past is to weigh our direction for the future. Judaism is distinguished by its readiness to enshrine its moments of degradation. We learn most from our failures. No other religion is quite so self-critical. The Bible goes out of its way to record the flaws and errors of our people’s loftiest leaders. The Prophets time and again excoriate a political and religious establishment inured to its violation of God’s will. Even the telling of the redemption from Egypt in the Haggadahopens with the fact that our ancestors started out as abject idolators.

Thus Tishah B’Av is the ultimate expression of a religion that dares to face its shortcomings. Centuries after the event, the Talmud relates that as the Babylonians razed the first Temple, cohorts of young priests climbed to its roof with the keys to the sanctuary in their hands. Addressing God, they acknowledged their failure to be worthy custodians and in a gesture of contrition, threw the keys upward. A hand appeared to extend from heaven to receive them, whereafter the priests fell from their perch to expire in the flames engulfing the Temple (B.T. Taanit 29a). The parable may actually echo the origins of the revolt against Rome in the year 66 C.E. which, according to Josephus, was initiated by the priestly leadership of the second Temple. More profoundly, though, it enunciates the view that there was nothing inevitable about the destruction of either Temple. In each case, misguided Jewish leaders needlessly instigated the Babylonians and Romans to eliminate the final vestiges of Jewish sovereignty.

As the emblem of exile and impotence, Tishah B’Av not only gives voice to our grief, but also focuses on inner resources to ameliorate our powerlessness. The Bible had shifted the arena for Divine-human interaction from nature to history and infused it with a pervasive moral order. The recurring national calamities which punctuated the history of ancient Israel, from the wilderness to the razing of the Temple in 587 B.C.E., were ultimately self-inflicted, and not the product of accident or greater power. That paradigm left exilic Jews a residue of sovereignty. A communal life saturated with piety, learning and morality, aside from bestowing inner contentment, stoked God’s compassion to protect and resuscitate God’s chosen people. The preoccupation with past hurts inspired renewed efforts at self-transcendence, even as it prompted a closer look at the human factor in the debacle. A mindset attuned to thinking in terms of sin is often a seedbed for pragmatic self-criticism.

But to recount the dark side of Jewish history was not to make a part stand for the whole. There is more to Jewish history than persecution. At the end of the forty-year sojourn in the wilderness, Moses lists the forty-two places at which the Israelites encamped between Rameses and Jordan. Rashi stresses that the intent was actually to highlight God’s steadfast love. Though the generation born as slaves was destined to die in the wilderness, they were not subjected to constant wandering. If you subtract the fourteen marches made in year one and the eight in the final year of their sojourn, they moved only twenty times in thirty-eight years. In other words, long periods of tranquility separated the intervals of disruption. The need to relocate periodically did not reduce the wilderness experience to one of perpetual, agonizing instability (Rashi on Numbers 33:1).

Similarly, the periodic intermittent of Jew-hatred that darkened the horizons of the Diaspora should not obscure the luminous stretches of stability and symbiosis. The persistent cultural creativity of medieval Jewry, fertilized by a steady flow of influence from their immediate surroundings, could never have come about in a world of unmitigated hostility. Organized in autonomous and self-sufficient communities, Jews mastered the art of forging alliances with the dominant political institutions in society to attain often more than a measure of security and prosperity. Above all, Tishah B’Av affirms the singular fact that exile never came close to bringing Jewish history to an end. Implicit in our mourning is the astonishing presence of Jews more than 2500 years after the destruction of the First Temple to recall the calamity.

The liturgy of the day consists of two distinct parts. In the evening, we recite the heartrending dirges of the Book of Lamentations (Eikhah) written close to the time of the traumatic event. In the morning, we intone laments (kinot) commemorating suffering endured in other periods and places. To prevent the Jewish calendar from becoming overloaded with days of darkness, Tishah B’Av absorbed these events into a generic commemoration of our homelessness without ever losing its original specificity. In all, the Ashkenazic cycle of poetic dirges, Seder Kinot le-Tishah B’Av, includes a total of sixty individual elegies. With number forty-six, the liturgy dramatically moves into a new key, the love for the land of Israel and the yearning to return. These poignant odes to Zion offer consolation to assuage despair with hope, assuring the worshiper that the disordered state of exile is but a temporary condition.

The triumph of political Zionism in 1948 is inconceivable without the long history of Tishah B’Av. Judaism had perpetuated the centrality of the land in Jewish consciousness. For that reason alone Tishah B’Av deserves to be continued. To eliminate it would be to obliterate the soil from which the State of Israel arose anew.

Since the erection of the Arch of Titus in Rome not far from the Colosseum with its display of ritual artifacts ransacked from the Temple, Jews studiously avoided walking beneath it. With the creation of the State of Israel, the practice abruptly ceased. Yet in proudly traversing it today, there is no need to forget that for nearly nineteen hundred years we dared not do so. Memory is a deep source of comfort and insight even after it has effected change.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Devarim are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.