Passing through the Jewish quarter in Paris, Napoleon Bonaparte stopped to investigate the strange laments emanating from the local synagogue. His curiosity had peaked when he was informed that it was the Ninth of Av and that he was listening to the Jewish people wail over the destruction of their Holy Temple in Jerusalem. “When did this thing happen?” probed the inquisitive Emperor. “Some 1700 years ago,” came the nonchalant reply. Upon hearing this Napoleon remarked in a tone of conviction: “A people who refuse to forget their past, are destined to forever have a future.”
Someone once appealed the Kotzker Rebbe for a badly needed Bracha. The Rebbe Blessed him that: “The Almighty should help.” The dire man persisted: “What should I do until He helps?” The Rebbe rejoined: “I bless you that the Almighty should help until He helps!”
“Whoever mourns for Jerusalem, will merit to witness her rejoicing, as the Prophet (Yeshayahu 66:10) declares: ‘Rejoice with her greatly, all who mourn for her.’” – Talmud
The designation of a day to commemorate a given event or segment of society, is a common occurrence among the world’s various nationalities and cultures. Americans, for example, celebrate Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Independence Day, Presidents Day and a host of other special occasions, such as Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day and even Secretary’s day.
Judaism (l’havdil) has its own assortment of commemorative occasions. In addition to the Biblical Festivals, there are a host of Rabbinical Holidays, such as Chanukah and Purim, as well as some of the less major occasions, the likes of Tu B’shvat, Lag B’omer, Pesach Seini and Tu B’av.
So, at first glance, the designation of a day intended to commemorate the destruction of the Holy Temple – the pride and centerpiece of our glorious religion – seems entirely reasonable. However, upon further reflection, it does not appear to be all that logical after all.
While the nature of a holiday in most cultures and religions is, primarily commemorative – if not economy driven – and hence relatively shallow by comparison, it is not that way in Judaism. There are, in fact, no purely commemorative oriented holidays in Judaism, much less commercial.
While some or perhaps all of Judaism’s holidays have a commemorative component, their core is not “Commemoration;”they contain a far deeper dimension and essence. Each Jewish holiday bears a compelling message, relevant to the day and age in which it is celebrated. Far more than commemoration of the past; Jewish holidays are celebrations of the present and future.
Given the above the question emerges, what relevant message is there in the two thousand year old destruction of the Temple, holy and glorious as it was, that would warrant an annual commemoration, and not just any commemoration, but one that calls for fasting, sitting on the ground, lamenting and weeping?
Let’s face it, two thousand years is a very long time. Civilization has evolved beyond recognition in the course of these two millennia. Hardly a people or culture on the face of the earth can date itself back to that epoch. Virtually nothing in the world, as we know it, has any semblance to that point in history.
In fact, the very enemy that had destroyed our Temple and driven us out of the land is long since gone, yet we’re here. So what are we crying about? Is it reasonable to mourn a two thousand year old structure?
Ok, so it’s not just the Temple’s structure that we mourn, it’s the whole era. Those were after all the glory days – the zenith of our existence as a people both spiritually and physically – but still, nothing lasts forever. Shouldn’t we let bygones be bygones? Are we not being a little unrealistic by holding on to a past life?
One can further point out that, in recent history we have in fact witnessed the miraculous return of the land to our people and our people to the land. Doesn’t that go a long way in making up for the tragic events of two thousand year ago?
It can be argued that the return of the land, after two thousand years, is as big an event, or perhaps even bigger, than our being driven out, yet we still mourn those long-gone days of glory. Why?
To answer this question we must first recognize that our existence as a people cannot be perceived as a natural or normal phenomenon. If we were to observe our existence in a purely conventional context – another race among races, another country among countries – there would indeed be valid grounds for the argument:
Why should we expect our two thousand year old Temple and glorious religious hay-day to survive the vast span of history when little else has proven to do so? But, in that event, it’s not likely that we would be around to even ask the question.
It is quite obvious that the Jew does not perceive his existence or that of his faith, in the context of anything ordinary or rational. Ordinary people do not march to their death defiantly chanting “Ani Ma’Amin…” Ordinary people do not pick up, after being persecuted and massacred to the brink of annihilation, time and time again, only to rebuild. What other people have done this?
According to the rational order of things we should not really exist at all, as proven by the fact that no other people from that age continue to exist – nations that have suffered far less persecution than us Jews.
This passion for life and ability to bounce back from the abyss is the secret of Jewish survival and the secret of our Jewish destiny. It took a man like Balaam; obsessed with the desire to curse the Jewish people, to recognize and proclaim the importance of this quality: “Yea Israel, what G-d has planned. Lo, a people that rises like a lion cub, Leaps up like the king of beasts,” Numbers 23:24.
Balaam’s metaphor of a young lion cub, who, though at times lies quietly as if unconscious yet in no time leaps to his feet in full preparedness, underscores Israel’s nature and ability to rebound from the most trying of challenges and afflictions. It bespeaks our mindset that our hour of greatness is yet to come.
When the Romans crushed the Jewish rebellion in 70 CE and destroyed the Temple, they carried out the majority of the Jews into exile. They built a huge victory arch in Rome showing the Temple utensils being taken as spoil. The Romans minted coins depicting a conquered mourning Jewess, along with the words ‘Judea capta’ (Judea is captured). In their minds, the Jewish people had been crushed.
The Roman Catholic Church, which became the official religion of Rome, taught as doctrine that the Jews had been replaced and rejected by G-d, never to return to Israel. The Church, along with the scholars of Islam, mocked the Jews and taunted them over their abasement, claiming that their continued exile was proof of their replacement in G-d’s eyes. Yet, while the Roman Empire today is nothing but a distant memory; a subject described in Wikipedia, Jews and Judaism are alive and thriving.
The nation that has for so long felt like a sheep among wolves has once again arisen like a lion. While the European furnace had not yet ceased to smolder; while the stench still rises from its ghastly crematoriums, the dry bones of its victims were already roaring to life.
In 1948, two millennia after the Roman emperor Hadrian burnt our Temple, razed Jerusalem, sold the Jews into slavery and arrogantly declared ‘Judea capta, the Third Jewish Commonwealth was established. After centuries of oppression and persecution, crusades and pogroms, Inquisitions and Holocausts, the Jewish people miraculously returned to the land of their forefathers – once again living in Jerusalem, the city of King David.
Three thousand years after Balaam shared his prophecy with the world, Jews remain convinced of its Divine source and intention; it is as relevant to them today as it has been three thousand years ago. And who could argue.
Has there ever, in the entire annals of mankind, been something as incredible as a nation to have survived the sword and the stake, the racks of the Inquisition and the crusading lance, the cross and the crescent, the killing fields and the gas chambers? Only by the grace of G-d and the tenacity of the Jewish spirit, were we able to survive with our identity and message intact.
This inextinguishable Jewish spirit is what has amazed the greatest philosophers and historians throughout the ages, admirers and critics alike. “The Jews are the most remarkable people in the history of the world,” asserted the nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, “For when they were confronted with the question, to be or not to be, they chose, with perfectly unearthly deliberation, to be at any price … They defined themselves counter to all those conditions under which a nation was previously able to live …”
It is only because the Jew sees himself as a unique creation with a unique mission that he has chosen “To be” against all the odds, and it is only for that reason that he still “Is.” With the above in mind is there really any wonder as to why as Jews we refuse to forget our past? Why we continue to reject the existential state of exile and descent?
The Jew knows in his deepest of psyches that there is meaning to his life and that there is meaning to creation and that the dark and bitter state of exile is not it. The Jew is deeply cognizant of the fact that darkness and spiritual deprivation are not the end-all state of creation which G-d had in mind, but rather descents for the sake of even greater ascents. Thus, he wails. To cry is man’s most potent statement of dissatisfaction with the way things are – his most core expression that things could and should be different.
No one more than the Jew, is aware that every calamity and every form of destruction that had ever come to be, tragic as it were, had resulted in greater renewal and growth. He is keenly aware that the sin of the golden calf and the breaking of the first set of Tablets had spurred a second set, which contained an inconceivable amount of additional Divine knowledge.
He is likewise aware that the Babylonian exile had yielded the unparalleled gift of the vast Talmudic body of text, which has become the central and most comprehensive resource in all of Judaism, and that the same is true of every setback. Thus he shall never be satisfied with the state of descent.
At the core of every Jewish soul lies the fundamental belief that G-d is good and that all which emanates from Him is good – that every challenge, setback and defeat is intrinsically permeated and saturated with potential, opportunity and blessing. Thus he sets his sights beyond the pain, beyond the suffering and destruction.
On Tishah B’Av the Jew declares that he will forever seek the ascent within the descent and that he will never mistake one for the other.
All this, of course, is connected with this week’s Torah reading, as all events of a given week are. Since Devarim, the first Parsha of the fifth and final book, is always read on the Shabbos before Tishah B’Av, its message must be evermore relevant to this occasion.
As it turns out, the book of Devarim, in its very anatomy, expresses the idea of decent for the sake of ascent. The book of Devarim, we are taught, is distinguished from the four earlier books by virtue of the fact that, unlike the other books, where Moshe repeated the words of G-d verbatim, in Devarim he actually uses his own words.
The use of Moshe’s own words is obviously somewhat of a descent in comparison to those coming directly from the Creator Himself. However, at the same time there is considerable advantage to the recipient in Moshe’s internalization and reformulation of the words. For, in the latter event, the words are more “customized,’ if you will, to the level of the recipient.
Given the fact that the book of Devarim was directed to the second generation after the Egyptian liberation, not only was this generation a step removed from the Sinatic experience, it was, more importantly, the generation that was destined and poised to inherit the land, with all its intrinsic trials and tribulations; this more customized form of speech was a crucial blessing for them.
With a bit of contemplation, one may come to fully appreciate how the latter encapsulates and personifies the essence of Yiridah L’tzorech Aliah – descent for the sake ascent of, which as mentioned above, is what Shabbos Chazon and Tishah B’Av is all about.
In the final analysis it is the Jew’s ability to appreciate the secret of Golus – his ability to understand the true wellspring of rejuvenation that lies within the deterioration of the seed – that accounts for his miraculous invincibility.
May these days of mourning finally and forever be transformed to days of joy and merriment. After this long and bitter exile and the enormous descent, may we merit the ultimate and final ascent with the coming of the righteous Moshiach BBA.