Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Destruction and Mourning

Last night, on erev Tisha B’Av, we went to the Western Wall and had a fascinating experience. Below, our conversation and the event that followed.

The Kotel on erev Tisha B'Av 
I have conflicted feelings about Tisha B’Av. Traditionally, the holiday commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples. From my observation, mourning the loss of the Temple necessarily means hoping for a Third Temple. Indeed, just outside the Kotel Plaza, we saw miniature models of a rebuilt Third Temple. Are people suggesting that we destroy The Dome of the Rock? On other days in the Old City, we’ve seen dream-like paintings of the Jerusalem countryside with the Third Temple in its center, smoke from the sacrificial offering ascending to heaven. Is the ethical Judaism we practice today not sufficient?

What has sustained the Jews for thousands of years is adaptability to change. Jews have been their most successful in the Diaspora. The Middle Ages in Spain saw a blossoming of Jewish religious, cultural, and economic life. Jews in America today are the most prosperous Jewish community in history. The Purim story in Sushan, problematic as it is, stands as the first account of Jewish triumph in the Diaspora. Our intransigence has cultivated our creativity. And yet, life in the Diaspora has been hard for the Jewish people. In Spain and in Shushan, our golden ages eventually met a tragic end. Tisha B’Av reminds me of our frailty.

For 2000 years, our people have hoped to return to the land of Israel, to Jerusalem. Today we’re here. As a professor at HUC put it, we’ve already achieved a modern Third Temple—the State of Israel. I was moved on Tisha B’Av by the sight of an Israeli flag flying in the Kotel Plaza. This is a symbol of our triumph.

And yet, Israel itself is frail. Were the country ever to collapse or be destroyed, Jews worldwide would feel the effects. For all its complications, I love deeply what Israel symbolizes. I get physical anxiety thinking of the consequences of a destroyed Jewish state. It gives new resonance to Psalm 137, written after the Destruction of the First Temple: “By the rivers of Babylon we wept, remembering Zion.”

To me Tisha B’Av is a day to remember and acknowledge our scars—the scars of our people as well as our personal scars. When I said this to Daniel, he asked, “Then why do we gather here at the Kotel, at the ruins of the First and Second Temples?” After some thought I offered, “It’s like visiting the grave of a loved one that has passed. We don’t bring flowers and weep over a tombstone in hope that the deceased will come back to life. We go to remember, to mourn. To try to find closeness to that which has been lost.”

When we break a bone or tear open our skin, we are left with scars, some that we will see for the rest of our lives. Yet these scars are often far less painful than the unseen lacerations we carry within. We’ve all had destructions in our lives, things that have quite literally shattered us. Regardless of why and how we’ve been shattered, these destructions are a part of our history. To let them go unacknowledged diminishes the power of our resiliency. That is to say, I believe that we are stronger and more resilient for our tragedies than for our triumphs.

Suffering is not a concept that I often indulge in. I’ve always had a light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel kind of attitude, and not a sit-in-the-tunnel-and-throw-a-party-for-the-darkness kind of attitude. But this is a holiday that encourages us to stay in the darkness, to remember our destructions. As we sat on the stones that line the Kotel Plaza, my invisible scars came to light—images of heartbreak, loss, personal exile, and true devastation. As the tears fell down my face, I mourned. I grieved for the broken pieces of my past and faced the scars that they’ve left. Faced with these scars, I found tremendous faith, faith in the resiliency of the human spirit. With time and with love we heal. Our scars can serve as a poetic reminder of all that we’ve overcome.

On Tisha B’Av we come to the Kotel, a living wound of our broken past, and we mourn. On this day, acknowledging our scars is a way of owning them. We return to the destroyed temple to grieve our losses and hopefully to understand our resiliency, which is another way of saying exactly the same thing.

The Talmud teaches that the theological reason for the destruction of the Temple was senseless hatred.

We were sitting in the Kotel Plaza having this emotional conversation about Tisha B’Av. Leah put her head on my shoulder, and I put my arm around her back. A few seconds later, an older man walked up to us with an angry look on his face. (It’s forbidden to engage in romance on Tisha B’Av.) He motioned at us, shooing us away from each other, telling us in Hebrew that we shouldn’t be hugging. “We’re comforting each other,” I said in English. He moved closer and continued to scold us. I tried to tell him to leave us alone, but he grew more enraged. Not wanting to make a scene, we got up, grabbed each other by the hand, and left the Plaza.

What if we had been two men or two women comforting each other? Would this have been forbidden?

We went to the Kotel seeking an honest and nuanced connection with this challenging holiday. We sat and discussed and grew and remembered. And then, with the simple flick of a hand, our connection was destroyed.

We came to the Kotel to mourn. We left with a new scar.


  1. Dear Daniel
    I'm happy to hear your spending a significant time in Israel. We need people like you to be able to tell our complex story...
    With me I also feel that the Kotel is a little bit like that - I want to get closer and feel the sacredness but end up feeling wounded and scarred...
    I am in New York right now (both for work and vacation) so I had a different Tisha B'Av experience. However, had I been to Israel for Tisha B'Av - I would have probably gone to Sderot Rotshild in Tel Aviv or the Tent Town in Jerusalem. They were also commemorating Tisha B'Ava there, comforting each other. holding discussions through the night and thinking of the relevance of Tisha B'Av for our lives as we seek for Social Justice and Ahavat Hinam...
    Hugs, Anna

  2. he was probably anti-semitic, too.

  3. I read this on Tuesday, and now, Thursday, it still plagues me. On Tisha B'Av, we confront Sinat Chinam, the baseless hatred between men. It smacks one in the face that this sort of altercation should happen on this day in particular.

    The goal, ultimately, is unification as a people. In order to achieve this, we must always give our brother the benefit of the doubt and strive to see the world through each other's eyes. Perhaps he was unable to do so, but that doesn't stop us from striving to be more and appreciating him in turn. So while there is no excuse for his callous approach, and I in no way defend him, I play devil's advocate as a means to accomplishing our ultimate end- compassion and understanding.

    One approach to Judaism is to believe that "What has sustained the Jews for thousands of years is adaptability to change." Many Jews, certainly this one, believe that "What has sustained the Jews for thousands of years is adherence to Torah."

    One approach to Judaism is to believe "to each his own, we should embrace one another where they stand." Another approach it to believe "we are responsible for one another. We are obligated to gently reproach each other as a means of growth."

    This gentleman's belief and approach is clear. It's a shame that language barriers prevented a dynamic dialogue and that he was unable to hold his temper (a great sin!) Rather than condemn and point fingers, however, it is greater to appreciate all Jews for their unique approach. That is what will end Sinat Chinam.

    Love the Beatles mash-up, by the way.

  4. Rachel,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Walking home on Tisha B'Av, we talked about how easy it would have been for me to take my arm out from around Leah's back.

    While in Israel, I'm trying to experience flavors Judaism that are different from what I've known. Last week, we davened at Shira Chadasha, "an orthodox, feminist congregation" (http://www.shirahadasha.org.il/english/) which I absolutely loved. So much ruach! A couple weeks prior, we went to Beit Tefilah Israeli (http://www.btfila.org/?site_lan=en), which meets on the Namal in Tel Aviv and sings lots of secular Hebrew songs, facing west, over the ocean.

    A few nights ago, I had a fascinating conversation with a young modern orthodox woman. A few of my friends had a pretty heated argument with her over the details of their Jewish observance. I didn't participate. I didn't see the point. Afterwards, I approached her privately and we were easily able to agree on this: we should approach Torah with an open mind and an open heart.

  5. Dear Daniel and Leah,

    Great Post!

    This year, for the first time, I have started to think about the prayers for the third temple prayed by many Jews and what this really means. This is not a topic that I have thought about before coming to HUC, but it seems like a very important one now that I consider it. Ultimately, like Leah (I think), I've concluded that Tisha B'Av is a day for mourning the many tragic events in Jewish history and does not necessarily require the desire for a return to temple times.

    It sounds like you both had avery meaningful experience at the Kotel until it was spoiled. I think this highlights one of the biggest problems in that space. It IS a site that means something to all Jews - although that meaning is personal and varies. Conduct at the site, however, should also be personal and yet it is rigid and arguably oppressive. I used to believe in "practicing to the highest denominator" - the approach of observing Orthodox practice in the presence of Orthodox people as a way of respecting that they observe Halacha's that I don't and, as it's my choice, it's better not to upset others. However, I've grown to understand that I was putting down my own observance and disrespecting myself by doing this. So whereas in the past I would have said "would it have been so bad to just not hug at the Kotel?", I now fully support your actions. I hope that man noticed you leave and felt guilty/saddened - as he should - that he scarred you and interrupted your Tisha B'Av observance in such a negative way.