Monday, July 16, 2007

Menahem Av (Months)

For an abundance of material relating to Tisha b’Av, including teachings of the Rav, and alternative contemporary texts of the prayer Nahem, relating to the important question: does this juncture in Jewish history warrant changing the wording of liturgy? See the arvhives to this blog for July 2006.

“Roar, Lion, Roar”

The month of Tammuz, as mentioned last month, is symbolized by Cancer, the crab: a nasty, at times dangerous, but largely inconspicuous creature, which may be concealed in the muddy sands of the seashore,, and which—as reader Rahmiel Hayyim notes—moves (and snaps?) indirectly, moving sideways while looking forwards. The month of Av, by contrast, is the month of Leo, the lion: symbol of unabashed power, the proverbial “King of the Beasts.” It can represent the unleashing of the destructive powers latent in the world, but it also represents power, kingship and authority in the positive sense (in this sense it is analogous to the eagle, which, like it, is one of the four beasts that constitute the Divine chariot in Ezekiel’s Merkavah vision). Not only are the Gentiles who wreak havoc “lions,” but so is the tribe of Judah, source of the Davidic house, the royalty of Jewry. Many is the synagogue whose parokhet, the veil covering the Holy Ark, bears the image of two facing lions.

It is thus appropriate that this should be the month containing Tisha b’Av. The bitterest fast day and day of weeping on the Jewish calendar, Tisha b’Av is a kind of crux, around which the entire drama of Jewish history—of both Galut and Geulah, Exile and Redemption—is arrayed. The entire season bears a certain mournful tone—from the fast of Seventeenth of Tammuz three weeks earlier, through the gradually intensified mourning of the Nine Days and then of the week of Tisha b’Av, with the reading of three consecutive haftarot of admonition. The day itself marks not only the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, but of many other disasters in Jewish history, beginning with the biblical incident of the spies, down through the Expulsion from Spain, the outbreak of the First World War—and, by extension, many other events which did not happen specifically on this date, such as the massacres of the Crusades, the Chmielnicki pogroms in Ukraine, and the Holocaust, many of which are marked by special kinot.

But then, almost before the Fast itself is out, there are hints and hopes of redemption, with the seven haftarot of consolation beginning from the following Shabbat (Shabbat Nahamu, “Shabbat of Comforting“) all the way through the eve of Rosh Hashana. An ancient tradition has it that the Messiah himself will be born on Tisha b’Av. And, as soon as Tisha b’Av is over, the month even changes it name, from Av to Menahem Av—God as the comforting father.

The Torah readings for the month of Av are oddly appropriate to this theme. We always read the first four Torah lessons from the Book of Deuteronomy—Devarim, Vaethanan, Ekev, Re’eh (Deut 1-16:17), which consist almost wholly of moral exhortations; this is Moses’ valedictory to the people, in which he waxes eloquent persuading them to remain faithful to the covenant. The language is that of rhetoric, of a few basic core truths repeated and elaborated over and over again with different emphases; there is none of the spareness and economy of language that mark the narratives of Genesis or many of the laws of Exodus or Leviticus, or for that matter the later chapters of Deuteronomy. He reviews the history of the people, during their wanderings in the desert and before, trying to impress upon them the moral lessons to be learned from these events. (The legal chapters of Moses’ farewell soliloquy are left for the later chapters of the book, read during Elul).

Rav Soloveitchik taught that Tisha b’Av expresses two rather different, if not conflicting, motifs. On the one hand, like all other fast days, it revolves around the theme of repentance and teshuvah. “Because of our sins we were exiled from our land.” Based on the core idea that God conducts his world in a righteous, just manner, the root cause of all disasters is seen in our own (collective) ethical and spiritual shortcomings. Hence it is a time for teshuvah and soul searching, for which fasting and special public prayers serve as a kind of external expression.

The Torah readings for this season express this basic idea perfectly and eloquently: God is passionately involved in history; there is concrete reward and punishment in this world; the great Jewish drama of Galut and Geulah, Exile and Redemption, is the central field for divine activity. Indeed, the calendar is fixed so that the last Shabbat preceding Tisha b’Av is always the opening, title parasha of Devarim (even in a year, such as this one, when the Diaspora’s second festival day falls on a Shabbat, causing the readings to get out of synch between Israel and Diaspora for a certain period). Nor is it an accident, or merely a matter of convenience (“the Torah scroll is rolled to that place anyway”), that on Tisha b’Av morning we read the powerful words of exhortation from the section beginning, “When you shall give birth to children and children’s children and grow old/stale in the land…” (Deut 4:25-40).

But, as the Rav says, there is another, contrapunctal theme to Tisha b’Av: that of mourning. Of being so overwhelmed by events, so filled with pain and shock, so puzzled by the tragedies and anomalies of Jewish history, that one cannot utter words or prayer, or engage in the inward gaze of teshuvah, but instead one sits in stunned silence, or is even permitted to challenge and question God’s decree. On Shabbat Hazon we twice read the word Eikhah—in the Torah (Deut 1:12), and in the reading from the Prophets (Isa 1:21)—in passages bearing negative connotations, foreshadowing the Scroll of Lamentations and the Kinot, read later that week, that opens with, echoes, and reechoes with that same word: “Eikhah? Why?” How could He allow such a thing to happen?! This is the perennial question of Job, and of the Jobs in all generations: the sense that the course of human events, and perhaps especially of Jewish history, do not fit into the neat categories of standard texts of theology, such as the historiography of Deuteronomy. At such times, the principles of justice and retribution presented there somehow ring hollow.

I would like to conclude this section of the paper with a midrash for this occasion which, again appropriately, takes as its starting point a Torah verse read during the month of Av, one familiar to every worshipping Jew. Yoma 69b:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked: Why are they called “the Men of the Great Assembly”? Because they restored the crown as of old. Moses came and said: “The God who is great, mighty and awesome” [Deut 10:17]. Jeremiah came and said: “Strangers are destroying [or: dancing in] in His sanctuary!? Where is His awesomeness?!” Therefore he did not say “the awesome” [this alludes to Jer 32:18, where Jeremiah prays: “the God who is great and mighty, the Lord of Hosts is His name…”] Daniel came, and said: “Strangers are enslaving His sons. Where is His might?” So he did not say “the mighty.” [see Dan 9:4: “I beseech thee, O Lord, the God who is great and awesome”] These [i.e., the Men of the Great Assembly] came, and said: “To the contrary! This is His might, that He quashes His impulse and is long suffering with the wicked; and this is His awesomeness, for were it not for the fear of the Holy One blessed be He, how could one nation survive among the idolators!” And the Rabbis [i.e., Jeremiah and Daniel] how could they do so, and uproot the edict of Moses our teacher? Rabbi Eliezer said: “Since they knew that God is truthful, therefore they could not misrepresent Him.”

Jeremiah and Daniel are painted here as, so to speak, the first radical theologians. The author of our midrash sees the phrase used by Moses to describe God’s qualities as in normative; hence its use in the opening blessing of the Amidah (on the opposite prohibition, against adding to God’s praises, see Berakhot 33b; Y. Berakhot 9.1 [12d]; Rav Soloveitchik’s essay on Pesukei de-Zimra in Shiurim le-zekher Avi Mari, vol. 2, p. 23 ff.; and my own study of the subject in HY II: Ki Teitsei). Hence, when Jeremiah and Daniel, respectively, omitted one or another word from this phase in their own prayers, this is seen as a deliberate omission, reflecting a profound theological questioning: Where is His might? Where is His awesomeness?

To put it in simpler terms, they are seen as expressing the unbearable contradiction between the Deuteronomic praises of God, and the reality of history in which God seems either absent or impotent. Uncircumcised pagans brazenly enter the holiest and most primeval site in the world, engage in who-knows-what lewd acts, take its precious vessels as booty, and burn the rest to the ground! How can such a thing happen?! And then God’s precious people, the pure and delicate sons and daughters of Israel, are slaughtered, raped, tortured, taken into slavery and placed on the auction block as slaves, for servile labor or breeding! (see, e.g., the poignant kinah entitled Ve-et navi hatati hishmimah). How can the Almighty allow such things to happen!

The God described here is a passionate god (to use Heschel’s phrase), deeply engaged with humanity, and in an intensely personal, intimate relation with the Jewish people. Not the cosmic God, the All of mystical vision, or the abstract Ground of Being of the pantheist, but an empathetic God, who is by turns angry, loving, compassionate, or feels hurt and betrayed. (In a peculiar way, Martin Buber, in his “secular,” earthly-life-centered religion, embraced precisely such a God in his dialogic thinking, as against the transcendent striving for individual ecstasy during an earlier period in his life; hence his deep interest in the Bible, and especially the prophets: God, the “Eternal Thou,” entering into relationship with man.)

In any event, this midrash may be read on two levels. On the one hand, as a human internal dialogue. What kind of a God can we believe in after all the terrible things we have seen? This question has reemerged with greater intensity in modern times after the Shoah: if some of the ancient Sages were able to explain the Destruction of 70 CE as punishment for sinat hinam, groundless hatred, what sin can European Jewry—a large segment of which, at least, were bastions of traditional Jewish piety, Torah and good works—have possibly done to deserve such a horrible fate? Elie Weisel may be seen as a paradigm for this type of questioning: many of his books, from Night on, exemplify such thinking. Interestingly, in a recent interview in Ha-Aretz, Weisel states that he does not disbelief in God after Auschwitz, but challenges Him, quarrels with Him, asks Eikhah-like questions—but continues to live as a Jew, to pray, to learn, to do mitzvot.

The answer given by our passage is that of a God who somehow limits Himself, who deliberately restrains himself from unlashing His fury at the world. Perhaps He has given up on changing humanity in any far-reaching way; He seems to have come to the sad realization that even He (certainly within the limits of free will, one of the “ground rules” of the world He Himself has created) cannot change human nature. Thus, he permits the enemies to do whatever they wish—but somehow assures the existence of the Jewish people in exile. He is still a powerful, awesome God, but One whose power has been transmuted into something very different: power held in check, inner power over His own impulses. Or, in the perhaps ironic words of another midrash on the Destruction: “Who is like unto You among the silent” (mi kamokha ba-ilmim; Gittin 56b).

But on yet another level, this same midrash may be read as a kind of internal conversation God holds with Himself, albeit with much the same end result: self-limitation and restraint; taking a more modest, limited role in history; retreating, so to speak, to the four ells, the narrow parameters of the Beit Midrash, which one might translate as—the world of as-yet-unrealized intellectual ideals, within an unredeemed world. One might even say: that He shares in the Jews astonishment, their feeling of hopelessness in face of history. He empathizes with the Jewish people by accepting a kind of parallel role, of powerlessness and self-imposed silence. He no longer enforces world-wide justice; it is enough that he allows the Jews to survive in Galut.

“How Does the City Sit Desolate!”: Thoughts on Eikhah

While posting old material on my blog, I noticed that, notwithstanding the voluminous material about Tisha b’Av, its law, its liturgy, and in its theology, I’ve never written anything here about Eikhah per se, though I’ve written about the other four megillot. Hence, I thought I’d take the opportunity to make up the lack by sharing at least a few reflections on this book (Interestingly, Eikhah is also the one megillah I’ve never read from a handwritten scroll; indeed, which I have never in my life even seen)

Eikhah, the Book of Lamentations, or “the Lamentations of Jeremiah,” differs from the other four megillot in that it does not convey a sense of flow or sequence. Esther and Ruth tell very definite stories. Kohelet is a rambling soliloquy with no strong sense of order, but it revolves around a central question: what is life all about anyway? Song of Songs may or may not have a coherent story line, but by the end of the book the lover and the beloved and the love between them takes shape before our eyes. Eikhah, by contrast, consists of five separate chapters, five dirges, each one of which stands in its own right.

Chapters 1, 2 and 5 are alphabetically arranged dirges, with one verse per letter (although for some reason the letters peh and ayin are reversed in Chapters 2 and 4, as well as in 3), with long, stately verses, traditionally read in a slow, plaintive tune. But these verses really consist of two, or even four, shorter phrases. One can almost imagine the author saying two or three words, and breaking down in sobbing. (I don’t really understand these things, but I’ve read that Eikhah in fact has a totally different system of metre than all other biblical poetry).

What are the themes of these chapters? The city lying desolate. Its former glory. The suffering undergone by its population, due to the ravages of hunger and thirst. Compassionate mothers being driven by hunger to desperate measures. The contrast between the former splendor, both physical and spiritual, of its inhabitants—well-adorned women, bedecked in jewelry and fine clothes; streets filled with priests and holy men, prophets and nazirites; handsome youths and shy virgins with a promising future before them; beautiful homes and buildings; and its crowning glory, the Holy Temple—all laid to waste.

People often ask: why observe Tisha b’Av nowadays? What relevance can the destruction of the Temple possibly have to our lives today? Tisha b’Av is seen by many as something archaic. How can one mourn and weep and speak of a desolate Jerusalem while sitting in the midst of a modern Jerusalem, filled with life, with homes and schools and government institutions and academies and yeshivot and synagogues and museums of every possible kind? Does one really long so for the sight and sounds and smells of sheep and rams and bulls being slaughtered?

I have two answers. First, that a close reading of Eikhah reveals that the mourning is primarily for a national disaster: one that befell, in equal measure, the Temple, the city, and the people. Even if Jerusalem stands restored, we are a people with a long history and a long memory, and the remembering of past tragedies—both in the Land and in Exile—is an exercise of great spiritual, cultural and national value.

I will return to the second reason for Tisha b’Av, but first, Chapter 3. This is a three-fold alphabetic dirge, but with much shorter verses. Some people recite it in synagogue with its own special melody. It is the story of one person: according to many views, Jeremiah, the prophet who was persecuted for talking up to the king and prophesying the approaching destruction. “I am the man who has seen suffering at the rod of His anger.”

But what I find interesting about this chapter is that it portrays its authors theological reflections and swings of mood. All the time he wrestles with the problem of meaning, of what has happened to him, and to the people. Where is God? At one point, He is shown covering himself with a cloud, not allowing prayer to pass through. But then, on the other hand, he expresses confidence and trust: “God’s mercies are never ending, his loving kindness are not finished; they are renewed each morning, great is Your faithfulness!” There is no single answer; it is more like a stream of consciousness of a deeply religious man, who is troubled by what befalls him, and seeks an answer.

Chapter 5 is the only non-alphabetical chapter, and again consists of short, pithy verses. It is a kind of summary of the disasters and suffering that have befallen the people: our houses take by strangers, we must pay dearly even for water to drink, our women raped and humiliated, are old men uprooted from their place of honor at the gates, all joy is gone from our hearts. Once again, the emphasis is on the people; there is not even mention here of the Temple. But in this chapter, there is a clear sense of guilt, of Divine recompense, that the disaster is a punishment for sin. Hence, the concluding verse is a call to teshuvah, to repent: “Return us to You, O God, and we shall return; renew our days as of old!”

In conclusion, nevertheless, why the Temple? This past Shabbat I was at a Sephardi synagogue in a small town, of basically simple people. They were not great scholars, many of them were not even necessarily particularly observant. But two things struck me: first, the sense of reverence for the Torah scroll, as an immediate, tangible embodiment of the Holy. The most heartfelt prayers—for the State of Israel, for the soldiers fighting this war, and for the three kidnapped soldiers (I will not dignify Hizballah or Hamas’s actions by calling them POWs in the normal sense of that term) were recited before the open ark. Second, the Priestly Blessing was treated with awe: nearly everyone there covered their face with a tallit during its recitation. Again, this ritual is a remnant of the ancient Temple service. The Temple was special in that there was a sense of the Divine Presence, of God somehow dwelling among the people, of a direct contact with the Holy. One can celebrate living in a rebuilt Jerusalem, one can be happy with the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in historical, political, cultural, and national terms. But all these are ultimately events on a secular human plane. We do not, perhaps cannot, comprehend in precisely what sense this was so, but when the Temple stood there was a transcendent dimension to life in the Holy City that is somehow absent today. And for this, too, we weep.


Post a Comment

<< Home