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Monday, July 19, 2010

Tisha B'Av 5770: A reason to cry

Monday night and Tuesday is Tisha B'Av, the most mournful day of the year. This is the traditional anniversary of the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, among other tragedies.

It was not that long ago that Jews cried real tears for the Temple - and not only once a year. Countless Christian pilgrims visiting Jerusalem chronicled the heartbreaking sight of Jews gathering at the Kotel, then known then as the Wailing Place of the Jews, every Friday.

From Dwight's American Magazine, Volume 3, 1847:
I have said how proud and prosperous looked the Mosque of Omar, with its marble buildings, its green lawns, and gaily dressed people, some at prayer under the cypresses, some conversing under the arcades ; female devotees in white sitting on the grass, and merry children running on the slopes; all these ready and eager to stone to death on the instant, any Christian or Jew who should dare to set his foot within the wails. This is what we saw within. Next we went around the outside till we came by a narrow, crooked passage, to a desolate spot, occupied by desolate people. Under a high, massive, and very ancient wall was a dusty, narrow space, enclosed on the other side by the backs of modern dwellings, if I remember right. The ancient wall, where the weeds are springing from the crevices of the stones, is the only part remaining of the old Temple wall; and here the Jews come every Friday, to their Place of Wailing, as it is called, to mourn over the fall of their Temple, and pray for its restoration. What a contrast did these humbled people present to the proud Mohammedans within! They were seated in the dust, some wailing aloud, some repeating prayers with moving lips, and others reading them from books on their knees. A few children were at play on the ground; and some aged men sat silent, their heads drooped on their breasts. Several young men were leaning against the wall, pressing their foreheads against the stones, and resting the books on their clasped hands in the crevices. With some, this wailing is no form; for I saw tears on their cheeks. I longed to know if any had hope in their hearts, that they or their children of any generation should pass that wall, and should help to swell the cry, "Lift up your heads, O ye gates, that the King of Glory may come in!" If they have any such hope, it may give some sweetness to this rite of humiliation. We had no such hope for them; and it was with unspeakable sadness that I, for one, turned away from the thought of the pride and tyranny within those walls, and the desolation without, carrying with me a deep felt lesson on the strength of human faith, and the weakness of the tide of brotherhood.

From Home Life in the Bible, 1881:
Among the impressive sights of Jerusalem for the traveller, none perhaps is sadder than the Wailing-place of the Jews, which affords probably the only example of national ceremonial mourning in the world. The resident Hebrews assemble every Friday at the base of the wall of their ancient Temple in the Valley of the Tyropean, and with prayers and tears bewail before God the fallen glory of his chosen people. The formal lamentation consists of chanting certain appropriate portions of Scripture, such as the words of Isaiah: "Be not wroth very sore, O Lord, neither remember iniquity forever: behold, see, we beseech thee, we are all thy people. Thy holy cities are a wilderness, Zion is a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation. Our holy and our beautiful house, where our fathers praised thee, is burned up with fire: and all our pleasant things are laid waste" (Isa. lxiv. 9—11); and those of the Psalmist: "O God, the heathen are come into thine inheritance ; thy holy temple have they defiled ; they have laid Jerusalem on heaps. Pour out thy wrath upon the heathen that have not known thee, and upon the kingdoms that have not called upon thy name. For they have devoured Jacob, and laid waste his dwelling place. O remember not against us former iniquities: let thy tender mercies speedily prevent us ; for we are brought very low" (Ps. lxxix. 1, 6-8). This touching custom is very old; and during periods of foreign oppression the Jews maintained it only by paying a heavy tax for the precious privilege of touching and kissing the stones of their once glorious sanctuary. In the reign of Constantine the expelled race were allowed to enter the city only once a year to wail over the ruined Temple.
From The Church of England magazine, 1869:
A very striking sight is the wailing ot the Jews at the Temple wall, which any traveller may witness on a Friday afternoon about four or five o'clock. There is a narrow passage along the west side of the Temple area between what are known as Robinson's and Wilson's arches. The wall rises to a considerable height, and the lower part is formed of very large stones, which are supposed to bo remains of the Temple. They are much ruined, and the grass and herbage grow in the shattered crevices of the once neatly-joined masonry. In these crevices the Jews place little scrolls of parchment, on which are written prayers to the messiah to come and deliver them. Before this wall are gathered a throng of Jews: most of them are women, who wear long mourning veils of linen over their heads. Some are close to the wall, kissing the sacred stones and watering them with their tears. Others are seated on the ground, reading passages of scripture to one another from the Lamentations of Jeremiah and penitential psalms. All seem to be absorbed in deep and genuine grief. At one end may be seen a party of rabbis rocking themselves backwards and forwards in almost frantic grief, reciting in a wild chant psalms and passages of holy scripture, which are responded to by several boys in a sort of chorus.

A mere century ago, Jews keenly felt  a personal bereavement of the loss of the Temple. They sobbed and wailed over the fact that the beautiful Temple, the symbol of their nationhood as well as their faith, was being desecrated daily, that the Holy of Holies was being treated like a playground, or worse. The Wall symbolized the loss of Jerusalem and the millennia of exile of the Jewish people.

We should be crying today as well - for the fact that we no longer cry.

The triumphant words of Colonel Motta Gur, exclaimed in 1967, that "הר הבית בידינו" -"The Temple Mount is in our hands!", seems like a cruel joke today. It was in our hands - for only a matter of hours. In what can only be regarded as a modern Jewish tragedy, Moshe Dayan decided to hand the keys of the Temple Mount to the Waqf of Jordan.

Now, as before, Muslims continue to do whatever they want in Judaism's holiest spot - but the tragedy is multiplied, because now it is Jews who are stopping other Jews from ascending and it is Jews who are allowing the defilement of our holiest space to continue.

The Kotel, formerly a bitter symbol of destruction, now is characterized as a plaza of victory. Yet it is merely a retaining wall for a platform upon which is found Judaism's holiest spot. The focal point of Jewish yearning has never been the Wall - the Wall has always been, and remains today, a stark reminder of the loss of the Temple. The focus is only a few meters beyond the Wall, to a place that continues to be desecrated every minute of every hour of every day. The Kotel is not a place to celebrate - it is a place to mourn that continuing desecration..

We used to gather three times a year at that location. All personal differences dissolved during each Chag. The festivals were national celebrations, a family reuniion, the happiest times of the year.  That has been lost.

Why aren't we crying? Why have we lost sight of the tragedy that still exists, today, in the Har HaBayit? At the very moment of the culmination of Jewish national aspiration for 1900 years, during the giddy and emotional high of finally returning to the epicenter of our forefathers' yearnings, we faltered. We acted as if we really were not masters of our own land. We failed the generations before us. The millions of tears of those who cried at the Kotel for hundreds of years are wasted.

Giving up the Temple Mount was not an act of peace. Instead, it was a guarantee for perpetual war. Because we did not take control of this supremely important place, we now are in a position of bargaining for our own capital - as if it doesn't really belong to us. Even with political sovereignty, we are still acting as if we need to get permission from others in order to assert our rights.

It is of course a wonderful thing to see Zechariah's prophecy come true, with children playing on the streets of Jerusalem again, to see the Hurva resurrected, to see Jews return to the center of their universe - but today's Jerusalem has a cancer in its very heart. A cancer that is spreading.

The tragedy is even keener than it was before 1948, before 1967. The tragedy today is our own fault. The Psalmist asks"?מי יעלה בהר ה' , ומי יקום במקום קדשו,"Who shall ascend into the mountain of the Lord? and who shall stand in His holy place?"   How can we answer that question today without tears?

Yet we have forgotten how to cry. We have masked our bare, painful emotions with intellectualism and secularism. We have discarded our hearts and act as if we can survive with only our brains.

We cry at movies, at sports events - but we don't cry on Tisha B'Av. As much as we should be weeping for the loss of the Temples, we should also be weeping at the loss of our ability to internalize that loss.


We need to look at the tears of the Yerushalmi Jews of old and understand their source. Because the tears of loss are necessary to  give us the strength to win.



I wish my Jewish readers an easy and meaningful fast. May this be the last Tisha B'av we observe as a day of mourning.