Upon witnessing Jews mourning on Tisha Be’av, Napoleon once remarked: “A nation that cries and fasts for over 2,000 years for their land and Temple will surely be rewarded with both.”
“A nation that cries and fasts for over 2,000 years for their land and Temple will surely be rewarded with both.”Napoleon Bonaparte
The poignant scene Napoleon witnessed had been unfolding in Jewish cities and villages for more than 1,700 years. He was right to be impressed. We are people of memory and future, and historical consciousness can’t be defeated by weapon or tongue.
What would Napoleon say today if he saw Jews in modern Israel sitting on the floor and mourning lost glory? He would probably shout “Wake up and get off the ground! Hasn’t your national glory been restored? Haven’t you returned to your homeland?” Even the modern state of Napoleon’s France has much to envy about Israel’s 74-year-old republic. Two hundred years ago Napoleon was inspired. Today he would probably be confused.
“Wake up and get off the ground! Hasn’t your national glory been restored? Haven’t you returned to your homeland?”Napoleon Bonaparte today (probably)
Mourning is a deeply personal and emotional experience. Merely “going through the motions” without authentic sadness yields a listless and empty experience. How can we mourn on Tisha Be’av in the modern State of Israel? Millions of Jews live in Israel, and millions of others live in its spiritual shadow. Though we still struggle with the final phases of history, our condition doesn’t even resemble that of previous generations. Living with triumph and pride, how do we mourn within this unfamiliar historical context? Without updating our mourning, Tisha Be’av can become emotionally hollow.
The list of 42
Interestingly enough, parashat Masei provides some guidance.
The opening section of this parasha lists 42 unfamiliar desert stations through which the Jews traveled during their 40 years of wandering. The coordinates of these sites are completely unknown, and these cryptic sand dunes are religiously irrelevant. Yet, the Torah describes our arrival at, and our departure from, each and every one of these campsites. Our 40-year experience was torturous enough without relisting the tedious stops, yet the Torah provides a painstakingly comprehensive registry.
There is obviously a deeper message to this roster of barren desert plains. Evidently, the Torah provides a lens through which to look back and reflect upon 40 years of futility. How can we make sense of all the lost years and all the lost lives? This historical lens helps refocus the desert journey of 40 years, and it can similarly help us untangle the long historical odyssey of the past 2,000 years.
Sadness and stability
Commenting upon the “unnecessary” list of encampments, Rashi claims that, ironically, the long list of “nothing places” reveals how relatively stable this gloomy period actually was. By deducting the 14 stations visited during the first year, along with the eight locations visited during the final year, it turns out that we traveled only an additional 20 times during the intervening 38 years.
During the 38 dark years of loss and of “radio silence” from God, we traveled, upon average, once every two years. Those painful years may have been grim and tragic, but they weren’t pointless or vain. People continued to live stable and semi-productive lives without too much instability and without constant relocation. We suffered, but life still had meaning and stability. God still allowed us to live relatively normal lives.
In this respect, our most recent 2,000-year journey feels similar. Due to our continued betrayals and religious breakdowns, we brought tragedy upon ourselves. We were sentenced to wander through the wastelands of history, marginalized from society and persecuted for our misdeeds.
However, despite all our excruciating suffering, we survived 2,000 years of hostility and hatred. And we didn’t just survive; we thrived. We formed robust communities, built a rich national culture, and maintained steadfast faith in God, who promised one day to restore us. We weathered expulsions, pogroms and inquisitions, but these attacks were almost always followed by periods of respite, which allowed us to recover, restock, and respirit ourselves.
As strenuous as they were, the past 2,000 years were not a black hole of history. As we did in the desert, thousands of years ago, we accepted our fate and soldiered on, living meaningful and productive lives. It wasn’t chaos and emptiness.
Returning home to the modern Israel allows us to take this longer view and to adopt a bittersweet perspective upon the past. By avoiding food on Tisha Be’av, we taste the agony of the last two millennia of discrimination and of national dislocation. However, on Tisha Be’av we should also take pride in having pulled off the greatest anthropological miracle of history – the survival of a people scattered across the globe without common language, culture, diet or flag.
In an odd way, admiring our past success in exile sharpens the grief of mourning. We are such a resourceful and resilient people, as evidenced by our outlasting the challenges of exile. How much better would our world be, had we not defaulted history and forfeited a second chance for Eden! Acknowledging our impressive perseverance throughout the exile intensifies the great forfeiture of Jewish history. This world could have been so much better. One day it will be.
A journey of healing
Rashi’s second explanation provides a different perspective upon those 40 years, as well as upon our recent 2,000 years. Rashi depicts an allegory about a father and his ill child who travel to visit a renowned doctor. Each stop on their journey to the doctor is filled with dread and trepidation, as they agonize over their uncertain fate. When they finally receive medical clearance, they return home, fondly recalling the various stages of their road trip. Places that once elicited distress and apprehension are now delightfully nostalgic. As they retrospect, they acknowledge that, despite their trepidation, at least they had each other’s company and support.
Throughout the lonely desert, God accompanied us and provided food, water and security. In retrospect, the desert encampments are suffused with wistful nostalgia, and are therefore enumerated.
As we exit from the dark and frightening tunnel of Jewish exile, we look back with gratification, knowing that, though we were scattered across the globe, God never abandoned us.
We faced an onslaught of hostility that was aimed at the people who stood for God in heaven and defended good on earth. God stood right alongside us.
Not only did God accompany us, but, like the father and son visiting a doctor, we, too, were journeying to a “place of healing.” Our travels and travails were not in vain, as we hauled humanity to a better place. We brought God back into a chaotic and violent world of savagery and black magic. We brought science, civility, and democratic institutions into a backward and stagnant world. We brought social justice and equality into a world of oppressive social and racial hierarchies. The road was long, but we always journeyed toward that place of healing.
Now we are at the final stage of historical healing. We are reaching the limits of human-delivered healing. Only by fully bringing God into this world can we complete the healing and repair a fractured world. But we have come a long way along the journey.
So, this year on Tisha Be’av, cry, mourn, admire, acknowledge, hope and dream. I don’t think Napoleon would understand this emotional carousel, but, then again, he didn’t live Jewish history. We did and do. ❖
The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.