Jerusalem’s redemption in the everyday

Mourning is a retreat from life and awakens essential questions, dilemmas the Talmud seeks to reconcile.

July 29, 2019 23:57
4 minute read.
NETANEL AND Sarah Ansani: We will serve as a steady bridge between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.

NETANEL AND Sarah Ansani: We will serve as a steady bridge between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Last week began the period of “between the straits,” the days from the 17th of the Hebrew month of Tamuz, when the Romans penetrated Jerusalem’s protective city walls, until the 9th of Av, when the First Temple was destroyed. In these “Three Weeks,” and particularly during the “Nine Days” (leading up to the 9th of Av), it is customary to conduct oneself with the practices of a mourner. Mourning is a retreat from life and awakens essential questions, dilemmas the Talmud seeks to reconcile.

The rabbinic discussion in the Babylonian Talmud opens by describing the various responses among the Jewish people to the Temple’s destruction. Many reacted by abstaining from ancient life’s pleasures, such as eating meat and drinking wine. These ascetics are asked by Rabbi Joshua about their restrictive practices and – in classic Talmudic rhetorical fashion – they retort with a question: “Shall we eat meat, the thing we used to sacrifice on the temple’s altar? Shall we drink wine, from which we used to pour libations in holy service?” This is to say, “We are simply unable to continue life as normal in the aftermath of catastrophe.”

Joshua challenges them with yet another question: “If so, should we not eat bread or fruits or drink water, since those were also used in the Temple rituals?” The ascetics stand silent. The rabbi pauses thoughtfully and says: “We may not mourn too much – and not to mourn is impossible, too.”

The teacher struggles to find a moderate path to synthesize the need for mourning’s expression and the simultaneous weight of its demands. To allow mourning to consume one’s life is a sort of death itself. And yet, there is no escaping the ruins of destruction and simply forgetting, as erasing the past is a type of death as well in dissolving national memory and its lasting values.

Rabbi Joshua tries to articulate another way, and quotes the words of the sages: “A person may plaster his house with plaster, but he must leave over a small amount in it without plaster to remember the destruction of the Temple; a person may prepare all that he needs for a meal, but he must leave out a small item to remember the destruction of the Temple; a woman may engage in all of her cosmetic treatments, but she must leave out a small matter to remember the destruction of the Temple.”

THESE THREE symbols relate directly to daily, intimate aspects of human life within the home. The first example is the house, representing a miniature version of the national home, the Temple we lost. The small unplastered square is a visible reminder of lack, an expression of longing for something missing. Similarly, at a meal that a person arranges for himself, he leaves a bit of food that we will not serve, mindful of the lingering scarcity even as he nourishes himself. Likewise, a woman performs her usual beauty routine, but leaves out a small bit in order to feel the strangeness and discomfort of the Temple’s absence.

The dialogue between Rabbi Joshua and the ascetics shines a light on our lives nowadays as well. His sentence establishes a need for balance: “We may not mourn too much – and not to mourn is impossible, too.” He understands that we must lament destruction but not succumb to it. We must, despite moments of despair, lead full and vibrant lives.
We, who battle for the right to pray at the Western Wall and read from the Torah there, want to live freely. The Torah is a book of life, inviting us to engage fully in life and not to retreat from it. To cling to Torah is to cling to life itself.

Yehuda Amichai’s poem “Tourists” relates to the rhythm of life in Jerusalem in a way that resonates with Rabbi Joshua’s wisdom:
“Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower. I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their marker. ‘You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.’

‘But he’s moving, he’s moving!’

“I said to myself: Redemption will come only if their guide tells them, ‘You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.’”

Amichai describes the Jerusalemite sitting with shopping baskets next to David’s Citadel, as a nearby tour guide points to him to show the tourists an ancient Roman arch. The arch represents the historical past and is at the center of the guide’s conversation with the tour group. The Jerusalemite living his routine life, signified by his bags of produce, is merely a point of reference.

Amichai says that the redemption will come when the Roman arches, the grand past, will be mere points of reference, and the human sitting with his packages, representing the vitality of prosaic life in Jerusalem, will hold the attention of onlookers. Rabbi Joshua, Amichai understands the redemptive power and potential of centering everyday life itself – the house, the meal, the accessories, the fresh fruits and vegetables. This is the hope of Jerusalem, the living and breathing Jerusalem.

The writer, a board member of the Women of the Wall (WOW), is a poet, literature teacher and educator at the Masorti High School in Jerusalem. A member of the Kolech Religious Women’s Forum, she publishes a weekly poem about the weekly parsha. She has been a member of Shira Hadasha since its 2002 inception and grew up in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, praying every Shabbat at the Western Wall.

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