Boy carries produce 370.
(photo credit: Laura Kelly)
Next week we mark the 17th of Tamuz, beginning a three-week period of
remembering and mourning for the destruction of the Temple and the exile from
Jerusalem that culminates with the fast of the 9th of Av.
For some, there
is something deeply incongruous in perpetuating this ritual mourning period for
a people that has returned to its homeland, and to Jerusalem. Is this
commemoration of destruction really still warranted? Why should our pain and
memory be marked in the time of our national rebirth in the same way it was
marked during our national dispersion? This question is usually presented as a
challenge to the way we continue to observe Tisha Be’av, but it perhaps reflects
an even larger question about what place longing should have for a people that
has come home. For centuries, the Jewish people longed for Zion, keeping
Jerusalem in our prayers and our consciousness well before the idea of national
self-determination in our ancient homeland became an active political program.
Throughout the many years of exile, the dreams of return sustained us, and
mourning over the loss of Jerusalem was both natural and a unifying force for
But what do we do with the sense of yearning our people has
cultivated and maintained over centuries when the underlying causes for it
ostensibly have been removed? What happens when the generation of Moses that was
promised the land but never entered it is replaced by the Joshua generation, for
whom Israel is not just a promise but an actual, physical home? Indeed, despite
all of our contemporary challenges, the Jewish people – both in our sovereign
homeland and in many communities outside it – is thriving and vibrant. What
place is there for the mindset or modalities of an existence in exile, when Jews
feel increasingly in charge of their national destiny? There have been several
answers to this challenge across the Jewish world.
For some the longing
for Zion has been replaced by the sense of a national mission to protect the
miracle of Israel’s establishment from the forces that remain aligned against
it. In this model, we have indeed fulfilled our dream: The Jewish people has
come home. But the calling of this generation is to shield that dream from those
who wish to threaten it physically or to undermine its moral legitimacy.
Destruction is still a possibility, and the memory of past exile serves as a
warning against its recurrence.
For others, the longing for Zion has been
transformed into a longing for normalcy. The anomaly of Jewish exile has ended,
but in its place has come a craving for an existence like all other nations. In
this view, our “chosenness” as a people, the uniqueness of our story, has only
been a curse.
What the return to Zion offers is a plea to bring Israel
out of the category in which the Prophet Bilaam places us in this week’s parsha,
of being a “nation that dwells alone.”
A third response has been to
channel our longing for return to Zion into a longing for a particular kind of
Zion: One in which the Temple has been rebuilt, one in which we are finally at
peace with our neighbors, or one in which the best of Jewish values and
traditions are reflected in the public life, culture and policy of the
Yet another response has been to remove Jewish longing from being
a collective experience and to shift it into an individual mission for personal
fulfillment. The national objective of rebirth has been met, but the quest for
personal achievement, the pursuit of a rich and meaningful Jewish life within
our families, communities and selves, continues.
What these and other
responses share is a respect for the continuing place of longing in the Jewish
condition. German Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig was one of numerous Jewish
thinkers who wrote about how a sense of exile and longing is embedded as part of
the essence of the Jewish story. We may live in Zion, but we remain forever
removed somehow from that mythical Zion that exists in our
From Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, from
the call to Avraham to leave his father’s house, from the wanderings and
unsettledness of our people’s history, from the unfulfilled love of the Song of
Songs, our tradition embodies a deep acceptance of – even a commitment to – an
abiding state of incompleteness.
Our tradition embraces the idea that
some sense of brokenness, of want, is not just fundamental to who we are, it is
in some way our contribution to the partnership we have with the Divine. In some
deep way, a striving for completeness from a state of inherent interminable
incompleteness is the one thing we can offer the Almighty, who by definition is
Our imperfections and the pain of living unredeemed
lives are in this sense both a source of deep sorrow and of profound strength.
It is a constant reminder of the journey left to make, and that the process of
reaching for our better personal and collective selves is never
There is always a place for Jewish longing, because we are a
people defined more by our aspirations than by our achievements. There is a
place for longing, even if we embrace the many blessings of coming
Dr. Tal Becker is a senior fellow of the iEngage Project at the
Shalom Hartman Institute. Learn more about iENGAGE at iengage.org.il.