A typical, secular Israeli youth asks:
“I realize that now we no longer have the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, that we are still in a state of partial exile, that the very existence of the State of Israel is threatened from without by highly militant enemies, and from within, by intermarriage and assimilation. Of course, I also know that the Western Wall, the Kosel, is the last standing remnant of a glorious past.
“But why should we mourn? And for three whole weeks? And on such a stupendous scale? What does all this have to do with me?
“Why should I spend an entire day bemoaning something that happened nearly two thousand years ago? Why should I not do all sorts of things during the days that precede the Ninth of Av, just because someone I don't know, someone who has been dead for almost two millennia, I don't even know who or what these people were, what they liked and what was important to them. How can I feel any connection to them, if they lived and died so long ago?
“Frankly, I feel cut off from them, not because I want to, but because there is such a great gap in time. That's just how I feel. Isn't it only normal?
“Can anyone point out to me the great-great-grandson of the great-great-grandson and so forth, from the old grandmother back in the Bronze Age, who could not possibly have lived until today in any case, even with Biblical longevity? So what is there to be so sad about?
“Even if we are talking about the millions who died and are no longer with us, over a span of centuries of Jewish history – those who suffered at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar and his men, or from the Greeks and the Hellenists in their time, and later, the Romans, the early Christians, and then the Muslims, the Crusaders, and the Ottoman empire – each one had his turn. But what can I do? I know all about them, but I don't feel anything in connection with them.
“I just don't take to all these stories that start out 'Once there was a wicked king, and his name was such-and-such, and he issued evil decrees, and the situation was terrible; it was so sad...'
“What does all this have to do with me, now, the child of the twenty-first century?
“I'm here, and now, in this house with the noisy neighbors, and the elevators that don't come – just when I've got a nightmare of a tooth ache, and I'm completely washed out. What do I have from it all, and especially we, the children of the twenty-first century, looking for an identity right now, not in the past? Even if it is interesting, it is so distant from what I feel, and even from my imagination.
“I'm sure you'll agree with me that the matter of the siege of Jerusalem, and the walls, the starvations and the bloodshed, and the blood of Zechariah the Prophet, and the Babylonians who breached the wall, and later, the Romans, in their turn, and Turnus Rufus who plowed over the Temple Mount – it is all so distant from today's realities...
“Even if I stand on the tiptoes of my mind and try to reach up and touch this past, it's just too, too far away; totally out of range for me.
“So, really, why do we have to sit on the ground for so many hours, to try to understand the books of dirges and lamentations that just gather dust on our bookshelves from year to year, and to recite them with such devotion, and not to wash for a whole day, and, it goes without saying, not to listen to music, and a whole lot of other little things that are no source of pleasure – really, what's the point of going through all the rigmarole again each year?
Your description of your difficulty in identifying with the rituals of mourning, and of Tisha B'av in particular, is open and honest, and deserves a response in kind. We'll try our best to explain.
One morning about twenty years ago, a woman woke up and discovered that she had lost her sense of feeling in her limbs. If she closed her eyes, and went by her feelings, it seemed to her that she could feel her hands resting at her sides, regardless of where they really were. At the end of her legs, she had the sensation of two lumps of dough, not feet. She didn't know what had happened to her; understandably, she was terrified at her sudden lack of feeling.
The patient defined her condition as the realization of her worst fears. “My body's not talking to me,” she said.
Her case was reported by the renowned neurologist, Dr. Oliver Sacks. The doctor's examination revealed that she was suffering from a rare disease involving internal interruption of the transference of nerve impulses (loss of proprioception) caused by an unusual internal inflammation of the nerve. As a result of the inflammation, the nerve root was damaged and failed to transmit the usual sensations originating in the limbs.
Eventually, the disease retreated and the woman regained her sense of feeling. The staff of the hospital instructed the workers to place the woman's food just out of her reach, so that she would be compelled to use her hand to reach for it. Little by little, she regained the use of her limbs.
The story is not unique, but it is disturbing, nonetheless: imagine the woman's situation. She understood what was happening to her body, she knew how to explain it in medical terms, but that did not help her; she could feel nothing.
When I read about this case, I could think only about the facts; the idea of it was too frightening. Think of it: to feel that I cannot feel anything! To experience the non-experience of losing all sensation! How terrifying!
Perhaps we – as a nation – are somewhat like this patient. When healthy, we sense our existence, ourselves, with our inner feelings. If we are diagnosed with the disease which this woman contracted, it means being cut off from the center of our Jewish nervous system. We are suffering from a frightening condition.
However, our problem is much greater than what we thought, because the painful truth of the matter is that the insensitivity which we all share is not restricted only to matters of Jewish interest and concern. Definitely not.
We live in a period of exploding knowledge and a great lack of sensations. We have been transformed into creatures of nearly artificial intelligence, with a stimulus threshold that is high, so that the total of incoming sensations we experience is very low. We do not enjoy life, nor do we have that feeling of yesteryear that “life is good”, that things flow smoothly and the birds chirp cheerily from tree tops as we stroll in the cool, evening air.
Today's world rushes ahead at breakneck speeds; the accelerated pace strains our power to concentrate and to pay attention to the task at hand.
Every sound is reproduced with a maximum of decibels, and commands our attention, whether we like it or not. We are required to absorb messages and to respond to them – intelligently – in a split second, if not less. There is no such luxury as time to “reflect” or to think things over. The world demands that we respond to a multitude of strange and grotesque situations which come and go with the speed of lightening.
The changes can be found in every realm, starting with fashion, culture, social norms, landings and take offs, strikes and over activity. There are scandals and the inevitably, the subsequent committees appointed to investigate. There are sweet, innocent children whose lives are threatened, work places without any real place to work at, and a general atmosphere of instability.
Everything is “just for now” – even those things which should be solid and stable, terra firma under our feet, such as friendships and loyalties to values. People's friendships are a function of commercial interests, not personal bonds. Smiles straight from the Dale Carnegie Institute abound, so much so, that we become somewhat allergic to them.
Society's lack of pain and its search for emotional experiences has reached proportions which are absurd. The media is full of close-ups focused on the face of bereaved mothers, their faces contorted in anguish. Cover photos present us with well-known public figures in unflattering poses, the victims of the latest popularity polls and jealous competitors, or zealous media reporters in search of fresh blood.
From here, we go to the question itself: What is the true meaning of mourning? It is the barrier which life does not cross. Beforehand, there was life; now it is no longer with us, explains Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch. Rabbi Hirsch goes on to explain the common denominator between the Hebrew word for mounting, evell, and the word for “but”, avahl. The word “but” indicates a stop, a cessation. Our first thought was such-and-such, but then it was terminated, and our thought switched to a different course – At first A, but A was abandoned or terminated, and therefore replaced by B.
So, too, does mourning indicate that someone or something "terminated" or ceased to exist as we knew him or it. A limit has been imposed on A; for a time, it was there, BUT now, it no longer is.
“ Mourning” indicates a situation which is dark, a dulling of the senses, an encounter with a force which prevents our lives from being infused with joy, and does not allow us to bond any longer with the dear ones who have been taken from us. From this point in time onward, the mourner reacts with a degree of reservation: "True, this is a time to rejoice, but how can I be completely happy when so-and-so is not here to enjoy it with me?"
(See also Rabbi Hirsch's comments on Genesis 37:34 for further discussion of the nature of mourning.)
Indeed, anyone who lacks a basic sense of self-identity and of a bond with his Jewish heritage, has torn a string on which to play the symphony of his life. This alone is adequate reason for us to mourn.
But here, too, we find the cure to our ills. Anyone who senses that he or she has at least one minute spark of sanctity, and is searching for the mother flame from which that spark arose, can be assured of a good chance that he will eventually experience his soul more fully, when it returns from its exile, after a cathartic bout of mourning and weeping.
All those who can yet catch within their hearts the innocent and pure sound of the soul's harp, should hearken attentively to each note and reaffirm their faith that these notes are patiently awaiting the day when they will be released to so that they may again sing out the praises of their Maker in praise of their Creator.
From the echoes of this one remaining chord, the chorus will again swell and return to its source. The day will come when the heart will again sing and weep with the same Levites who declared they would hang their instruments on the willow trees after the Sanctuary was destroyed:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. Upon the willows in the midst thereof we hanged up our harps. For there they that led us captive asked of us words of song, and our tormentors asked of us mirth: 'Sing us one of the songs of Zion.' How shall we sing the L-rd's song in a foreign land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I remember thee not; if I set not Jerusalem above my chiefest joy.
How fortunate the individual who is aware of himself and his feelings; even more fortunate is he who can share the feelings of his fellow man. And even nobler than them both is he who senses what his nation is lacking and shares in their suffering, the spinal cord of our soul which longs for true stability and comprehensive joy.
But there is an even more sublime spiritual level which man can attain, namely he whose heart senses the exile of G-d's presence, and experiences just how difficult it is to sense something authentic. To try to grasp something of the hidden spark, trembling with pain, through the mists of the hopeless present. And to ask ourselves: Why has everything of value ceased to exist?
The late Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, of blessed memory, explained what is happening today when he addressed a group of his disciples decades ago, in 1950. At the time, Rabbi Dessler was discussing our mourning over the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The rabbi spoke about man's longing for the cessation of all evil, and described the process through which mankind is destined to fulfill this dream. He described the state the world would be brought to in order to bring man to his senses: man will lose both his self pride and his chauvinistic, national pride. Material pleasures will lose their attraction. The world will be instable. Those whose souls no longer have inner content will be lost, and perhaps go so far as to commit suicide, Heaven forbid, because without the pleasures of the physical world, they find no purpose in his continued existence.
In contrast, those in whom there remains at least some small spark of spirituality will discover that the collapse of the world as he knew it in the past has fanned this spark to a flame. This flame will give off more and more light, until it brings him to return to his Maker completely and rejoice (in being close to Him) for all time (Michtav Mei'Eliyahu Vol II pg 52: The Month of Av: the End of Evil)
Each of us has the ability to reflect on our history, to connect with the past, and to identify with the events of his past. This sensitivity is real and alive, and can be achieved by one and all, when he or she feels a connection to the topic involved. One cannot connect to the past until he has a well-defined present to serve as the bond between past and future. An individual who has only the here and now, with no history to serve as its foundation, will not have a future. Even his present existence will lack significance and meaning for him, since it is not rooted in a meaningful past.
Not so the person fortunate enough to be “equipped” with a deep sense of his past. The awareness of where he and his people come from ensure him of a definite, promising future. In addition, he knows that he and his generation are the bridge that join the past to the nation's future. He has a well-defined role to play, and derives profound satisfaction in knowing that his life has significance. His success is the success of an entire nation, not one lone, petty individual lost on the face of an endless universe.
The person who senses that he is an invaluable link in the backbone of the eternal nation will share in his people's hopes for the ultimate redemption. It follows naturally that the commemoration of the calamities that befell Israel in the past is not a formal ceremony recalling the distant past, when we lower the flag to half-mast and listen to the strains of an unfinished symphony.
Rather, it should be likened to the recollection of memories of the warm home of one's childhood, the ache and longing to be once again enveloped in the loving caress of one's grandparents; our mourning involves a capacity to connect to the eternal flow of our nation's unique, miraculous history which stretches over the centuries and millennia of time. Our past defies the laws of logic and flouts the accepted rules of the world's historians.
The period of mourning observed by the Jewish people presents us with the opportunity to renew our bond with our deepest national roots and to reaffirm our position as the current link in the unbroken, unending chain of our history.
Our tears arise from a hidden, inner fountain that we knew not lay within us. They are an expression of an inner renewal, and with them we irrigate the roots of our soul from which we draw our nourishment during the year to come. We drink of these waters on Rosh Hashanah, on Yom Kippur, and on the three Festivals; likewise, when we pray and when we recite blessings, on days of rejoicing, and on days of mourning.
Through these roots flows the sap which nurtures the trunk of our tree of life in the Diaspora, to re-enforce it and to enable it to put forth new, strong branches on which will appear new green leaves and the buds of spring.
Our sorrow creates a hollow within us, an empty space which we can then fill with hopes and rejoicing, and our Sages state: "All those who mourn over Jerusalem will merit being witnesses to its rejoicing" (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Taanit 30b, and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 554:25).
It is precisely the anguish and the tears which enable us to raise Jerusalem up over our “chiefest joy.” It is our annual mourning which empowers us to experience our feelings and to anticipate the redemption. It is this period of grieving which keeps our spirit stable and calm, for it renews our anticipation of the renewal which our nation anticipates each day.
May it come in our times – nay, today – so that we all partake of the fruits of our faith as together we climb the heights of the Temple Mount as the Scripture assures us we will.
The renown author of the liturgical verses expressing our longing for the redemption, Rabbi Judah Halevi, penned the famous lines recited at the height of our mourning, on the Ninth of Av:
"Jerusalem, will you not inquire after the welfare of your prisoners?"
He concludes with the words:
"Fortunate is he who awaits, and it will come, and he will see your light, and your dawn will shine forth over him."
In conclusion, we can now consider the concept of mourning in a new, deeper and broader context. We are one nation, with a past which spans millennia and embraces the globe. We are the people chosen directly by our Creator. At the time when we were selected to serve as His representatives in this world, we, on our part, chose Him to sustain our souls and to keep us alive. As one man, we declared: "We have no life without You, our Father and our beloved King."
Thus pledged the Jewish People when they entered into the His covenant, and we shall never go back on our solemn oath, as it says:
"You have avouched the L-rd this day to be your G-d, and that you will walk in His ways, and keep His statutes, and His commandments, and His ordinances, and hearken unto His voice. And the L-rd has avouched you this day to be His own treasure, as He has promised you, and that you shall keep all His commandments; and to make you high above all nations that He has made, in praise, and in name, and in glory; and that you may be a holy people unto the L-rd your G-d, as He has spoken."
The words of these verses were engraved on the Jewish heart, young and old, over the ages; they remained there, engraved in stone, even in the darkest hours of our history. At the time of the Hasmonean revolt, even the youngest of Hannah's seven sons knew them by rote, and drew on their power and might, when the cruel Roman emperor ordered him to feign that he was bowing to pagan idols.
The child quoted this verse to the emperor, and explained its significance:
"'This day, you have avowed the L-rd to be your G-d, and this day, G-d has vowed you to be His people.' We have already pledged to the Holy One, who is blessed, that we will never exchange Him for a different god, and He, too, has pledged to us that He will never exchange us for a different nation".
(Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Gittin, 57:b).
This profound loyalty and awareness of the eternal bond of the Jew to his Creator has preserved us to this day in the merit of our ancestors and their children, who kept their pledge faithfully. So, too, in the years to come, will there always be at least a remnant of Jews who are loyal to G-d, who remember our pledge, and who will never betray their pledge of fidelity, down to the very day when our mourning will be replaced by the eternal joy of the redemption.
Let us close with a well-known anecdote from the times of Napoleon Bonaparte. It is said that the French emperor chanced to pass by a synagogue on the Ninth of Av, and was taken aback at the sound of wailing and mourning. Not one to be shy, he peered inside, and was amazed to see the entire congregation seated on the floor of the synagogue, although there appeared to be no shortage of benches within. While he could not understand a word of the prayers being recited, there was not a shadow of a doubt in his mind that a terrible calamity had struck this community, and they were bemoaning their fate and praying that they be spared some fate worse than death that hung over their heads.
After inquiring what had happened, the emperor was astonished to learn that these Jews were mourning not some imminent catastrophe, nor a tragedy that had taken place recently, or even in the past few years. Their tears were shed for a Sanctuary that had been destroyed one thousand seven hundred years previously! Yet they were weeping as though it had been only yesterday!
When Napoleon heard the explanation, he exclaimed: "Where do we find another nation in all the history of the world that continues to mourn and to persist in its hope for return over a span of nearly two thousand years? Such a people – that continues to mourn for its homeland and its Temple with such intensity, so many years after being driven into exile – this people will surely endure all its trials, and survive to celebrate its return to its homeland and its ultimate redemption!"
May it be speedily, in our days!