Thursday, July 30, 2009

Renew Our Days as of Old

"An apocryphal story is told of Napoleon Bonaparte entering a darkened synagogue and observing weeping Jews, sitting on low stools. Asking what misfortune had occurred to cause such behavior, he was informed that it was the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av.

On that day, as Napoleon learned, Jews commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem and the fall of the Fortress of Betar. The day, marked with a 25-hour fast and a public reading of the book of Lamentations, signifies not only the loss of Judaism's singular holy site but the end of independent political sovereignty and the eventual expulsion, a second time, into exile.

On hearing that story, Napoleon exclaimed: "A people that cries these past 2,000 years for their land and temple will surely be rewarded." " (Yisrael Medad, from this article).

Today is the 9th of Av. For Liberal Jews (and most American Jews) it is not a day of special commemoration. For some of us, the day only makes sense if we assume ourselves to be in galut, or exile, which many of us do not, even if we live in the diaspora. For others, there is nothing to mourn; the Temple Cult was an archaic practice of animal sacrifice and we as a people have moved on to a higher, more ethical and spiritually meaningful mode of religiosity. For yet others, there is a sense we should be celebrating the return (and over 60 years) of a Jewish state in Israel.

For many Jews, however, it is still a powerful day. There is nothing like going to the kotel, the Western Wall, on the eve of the 9th of Av and seeing an endless sea of people of all ages sitting low to the ground, reciting the liturgy in small groups and literally weeping. And this is in Israel, in Jerusalem!

For what do they weep? I think that's a worthwhile question for us to ask, even if we feel ambivalence toward the day. This is a chance, some 7 weeks before Rosh Hashanah, to take stock. And there is much to lament. There are too many of us are not free: those in Darfur. Those in Iran. Those brought to this country to work in near-slavery conditions. Gilad Shalit. There too many of us are in exile, physical and spiritual, who feel a disconnect from their neighbors, their land, their country, their people, their God. Too many of us worry that Israel is going down the wrong track, that synagogues and other Jewish institutions are missing opportunities to be relevant, that Jews are increasingly voting with their feet, and are voting for something other than their tradition.

Will Eisner, in Dropsie Avenue, his 3rd novel of the "Contract with God" trilogy, views the lifespan of a neighborhood as a constant cycle of people moving in and people moving out, either by choice or happenstance, where to remain is to be exiled from opportunity but to depart is to abandon identity. The 9th of Av gives us an opportunity to look at the world around us and its brokenness--as well as our own sense of alienation, whatever it may be--and just have a moment of catharsis, a big cry-off so we can approach the New Year with, as the prayerbook says, "hope in our hearts and eternity in our thoughts." It is that nadir, that depth that allows us to rise again to move to creation, redemption and revelation again.

Lamentations ends with the words we recite at the end of the Torah service: "Renew our days as of old!" We long for an idealized past, be it through "King Arthur" fantasies or retro music stations , but we also look toward a future Redemption, a wholeness that we can only make together.

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