In Plain Language: To build and be built

The tears shed on Tisha Be’av are not only for pain of past punishments; they are just as much for our present indiscretions.

July 11, 2013 13:42
Woman weeping.

Woman weeping, crying, tear drop 521. (photo credit: REUTERS)

I write this column as the Nine Days begin. Culminating in the Fast of Tisha Be’av on Monday night-Tuesday, this week-plus in the Jewish calendar is arguably the darkest period in the Jewish year, as we sadly commemorate and contemplate the destruction of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem and our exile from the Holy Land.

Yet every year, at least for the last four and a half decades, many have questioned the relevancy of this somber event. For have we not witnessed the marvelous return to and rebirth of our glorious capital city? Is Jerusalem not the “built-up city that has been joined together,” as King David sang prophetically in his 122nd Psalm? Anyone who has walked through the City of Gold in the last few years cannot help but be astonished at the diversity and depth of beauty which defines our largest city. Anyone who has lately visited the Western Wall – the world’s seventh-most visited site – cannot but be impressed by the crush of humanity that supplicates and sways before these ancient stones. Among its thousands of visitors each day are numerous brides and grooms, whose pilgrimage to this holy place to seek God’s blessing for their upcoming marriage offers the most graphic realization of that ancient promise, pronounced under every huppa: “There will yet be heard again in the cities of Judea and the confines of Jerusalem the sounds of joy and celebration, the voice of groom and bride.”

Why, then, do we continue to carry on so mournfully for a lost commonwealth, when are so blessed with a magnificent and miraculous Israel? Indeed, there are numerous rabbis and poets who do attempt to “modernize” the prayers of Tisha Be’av, acknowledging the good fortune that has been bestowed upon us of late, thanking the Almighty for our return to Zion and Jerusalem, even as we recall the destructions which sent us into a bitter 2,000-year exile.

Yet I suggest that while we must be filled with gladness and gratitude for all we have been given, we must never lose sight of all that we have lost, or all that is yet to be accomplished.

Tisha Be’av is our sacred opportunity to remember the troubles and tragedies that have befallen our nation over these many centuries. It is our national day of mourning, if you will, for all the catastrophes perpetrated upon us throughout history. It begins with that very first calamitous ninth of Av, when the spies sent to scout out Israel – and the entire nation, by extension – rebelled against God and cried at the very thought of conquering Canaan and making aliya to the Promised Land.

“You wept needlessly on that night,” the sages quote God as saying, as if to a naughty child, “but I will give you good reason to cry on this date in the future.”

Our stubborn resistance to claiming our land as our exclusive natural habitat has spelled doom for us throughout all the generations.

And so Tisha Be’av has become synonymous with our suffering. We lost both the First and Second Temples on this date; we lost our independence when Betar fell 52 years after the Temple was destroyed, and Jerusalem was plowed over like a field by the Romans.

We were expelled from Spain on 9 Av, 1492, and World War I started on Tisha Be’av, August 1, 1914, setting the stage for Germany’s impending adoption of the Final Solution.

On Tisha Be’av we remember all these disasters, and more. We have special kinot, elegies, for the destruction of the Jewish communities of the Rhineland during the first and second Crusades; the massacre of the Jews of York in the England of 1190; the public burning of the Torah and Talmud by the French in 1242; and, of course, the manifold horrors of the Holocaust.

The haunting words of the Prophet Jeremiah, who served as a personal eyewitness to Jerusalem’s demise, rings in our ears: “Eicha yashva badad,” alas she sits alone, in solitude. This phrase not only recalls the fall of the holy city, but all the many times throughout history when we faced our oppression alone, with no one coming to our aid, no one willing to lend a hand to repel the crimes and cruelty being perpetrated upon us.

That loneliness, epitomizing our fate as “the lamb at the mercy of 70 wolves,” must fill us with bitterness and shame, until this very day.

And, it should be noted, our travails did not end with our return to the land.

All the terror we have endured here, from Hebron to Itamar, from Gush Etzion to the Park Hotel; all the thousands of casualties among our holy armed forces in the IDF; all the suicide-bombings and drive-by shootings and stonings on the roads – all these are part and parcel of the tears of Tisha Be’av.

Memory, as Elie Wiesel so famously wrote, is the key to redemption. And so we invoke that memory even as we sit low with our Book of Lamentations on the eve of the fast.

But the past is not our only focus on Tisha Be’av. We must also confront the fact that, with all our admirable achievements and resurrection as a preeminent nation, we are still far from realizing our status as a “holy people and assembly of priests.” The baseless hatred, the sense of false piety and the vicious infighting among brothers that characterized the Temple’s destruction is far from eradicated within our contemporary community.

When I left Israel recently for a short speaking tour, it was on the heels of any number of scandals being played out in Jerusalem. One of these, the struggle to elect a new chief rabbi – a process which ought to be a model for civility and spirituality – had turned particularly ugly, as a former chief rabbi sank so low as to call a potential future chief rabbi a rasha, a term we reserve for only the most evil of villains, such as Haman or Balaam.

All the while, a present chief rabbi sits under house arrest for embezzlement of charitable funds.

UPON MY arrival in the United States, I opened The New York Times – the world’s most read newspaper – to see a large article on the death of Marc Rich, the infamous fugitive financier, who fled to Switzerland when indicted by the US on 65 counts of tax evasion, fraud and illegal dealings with Iran, helping the rogue, Nazi-like state sell its oil while under an embargo by America for taking the hostages in Tehran. Though high on the FBI’s most wanted list, Rich – an apt name, if ever there was one! – avoided prosecution and was eventually pardoned by Bill Clinton, who slipped his name on to the presidential pardon list – without going through normal vetting procedure – on the very last day of his term. Later, it was revealed that the Rich family had given millions to Clinton for his presidential library.

The article made no fewer than 13 references to Rich’s Jewish background, Israel and the Holocaust, making the clear link between a Jew, injustice and living in the lap of luxury. As an exclamation point, the Times ended the piece by quoting a Fortune magazine exposé on Rich’s extravagant life in exile: “The enormously gifted fugitive from justice takes another puff on his cigar and sips his wine and decides to take a dip in his $9.5-million swimming pool.

Why not?” Granted, The New York Times drools at the chance to make Jews look bad, but what impression must this article make on the world at large? Does it cast us as a “light unto the nations”? And did the fugitive’s numerous acts of philanthropy justify the many rabbis and Jewish “leaders” who petitioned Clinton for his pardon? Poor Jonathan Pollard – literally; I guess he never earned enough to buy a president.

Just a day later, the same Times reported on 19 Jewish “charities” currently under indictment by the New York courts for pocketing millions, while falsely claiming to assist the poor, help victims of terror and fight leukemia in Israel.

We are a great and wondrous people, and we have accomplished great and wondrous things. But we have a long way to go to perfect our moral character, to increase our love for one another, to end our internecine battles and unite in faith, peace and harmony. The tears we shed on Tisha Be’av are not only for the pain of past punishments; they are just as much for our present indiscretions and the failure to perfect our souls in cause and character. As much as we long to rebuild Jerusalem’s House of God, we must first build ourselves, so that we are truly worthy to dwell in that house.

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana;,

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