A Nation’s Loss: National Mourning in the Jewish Tradition

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Grief is a fundamentally individual, transformative emotion. What can it mean to speak about “national grief, or national mourning”? Is there any calamity which a nation suffers that so alters its fundamental nature as to be truly analogous to the existential crisis the death of a loved one brings to an individual?
Certainly, nations have suffered grievous loss. They bury their dead. They mourn their dead. They honor them in national displays. But can the loss be said to have fundamentally altered the national character of those nations?

There may be among the family of nations another nation besides Israel that has endured such a transformative loss and risen again, transformed by the fire of grief. Yet which among the nations has endured not just one, but two such horrors? Which nation, other than Israel, knows such pain?

What defined the character of our deepest national devotion more than the Beit HaMikdash? It stood as the place where we most fully expressed our love and devotion, our brit, with God. How we grieved and mourned after our First Temple, the Beit HaMikdash, was destroyed by the Babylonians!

Then, in 70 CE, the Second Temple was destroyed by the Roman Empire. From that time forward, we wandered the centuries, adrift from the land that God had promised us, reduced to a nation of wanderers, beggars and slaves; a people once admired and revered, the object of scorn.

The purpose of mourning is teshuvah, redemption. But how could we possibly mourn such a national calamity in a way that could bring about teshuvah? The destruction of the Second Temple, the Churban, changed the course of Jewish history and destiny; its repercussions affected every aspect of our national and religious character.

We were fundamentally transformed as a people.

Zikaron – If I forget Thee, O Jerusalem…

National mourning is, first and foremost, to remember. So powerful is Jerusalem, that if our memory of Jerusalem were to be diminished, we would be diminished as a nation, as a people.

The first form of zikaron begins on the 17th of Tammuz, when the Three Weeks of mourning is ushered into our liturgical year and our remembrance of the destruction of God’s dwelling place on Earth begins, to culminate in the soul-searing tones of Tisha B’Av’s mournful lamentations.

The second form of zikaron has two aspects. The first demands active remembrance of the destruction: leaving a spot of the house unpainted; making mention of Jerusalem in tefillah and birkat hamazon – direct, concrete demonstrations of the diminution of our joy and “normalcy”.

Our actions proclaim that we will never forget the terrible tragedy; that the actual tragedy remains as real to us as it was to the poor souls whose eyes bore witness to it.

Our past defines an essential aspect of who we are. Ironically, we cannot be transformed without remaining in some very profound way unchanged. Therefore, though we could no longer offer sacrifices at the Temple, we offer prayers as both remembrance and as sacrifice. We internalize the reality of the Temple so that our character and our actions as a nation continue to represent the reality of the Temple, keeping it a living, dynamic presence in our lives so that when it is rebuilt, we can return to it and reestablish the sacred rituals of the Temple as if they had never been interrupted.

But even concrete, physical acts are not enough. After all, our loss was not merely physical; it was spiritual.

Our loss of spiritual vitality cannot be healed with mere physical acts.

Teshuvah – Spiritual Redemption

Rambam makes clear that our rituals, observances, prohibitions, and restrictions are an important means of moving toward teshuvah. These actions must stimulate the heart and the mind to probe and analyze why these national calamities have befallen us – certainly they cannot be encounters with the impersonal forces of history – and therefore, how we can be redeemed by them. The process of mourning must bring teshuvah. And teshuvah requires meaning. The loss that is mourned cannot be the result of mere chance. Our loss itself must be meaningful.

Random events have no meaning. The falling of a leaf in a forest is meaningless without God; how much more so the falling of a tree? Without God, death is meaningless. And life, too, must therefore be meaningless.

In such a horrible world, teshuvah would not only be impossible, it would be frighteningly unnecessary.

Blessedly, such a world-view is not a Jewish world-view. God Himself prompts His nation to remember that when “it shall come to pass, when all these things come upon you, the blessings and the curse, which I have set before you… and you shall return unto the Lord you God, and you shall obey His voice.”

I Have Set Before You Life and Death…

In Judaism, there are no meaningless events because God is always present. Meaning and faith are possible. We have transgressed and rebelled. We have been punished. But teshuvah is possible.

Our first and deepest solace resides in the fact that God is. Further, we find meaning in understanding that, like us, God too mourns. He too feels bereft of His glory, and He too recognizes that Churban means an obstacle to complete service and a diminution of His splendor on Earth.

When we went into exile, He too went into exile – shechinta begaluta. Kol makom sh’galu shechina imahen. Every place that Jews have been exiled, God is with them.

Israel is never alone. Israel is never without God. God readily admits to the necessity of His suffering along with His children. Like His people, God needs to be ever so much more assured, as it were, that “His great name be blessed.” This passage, more than any other, substantiates the idea that Kaddish is the vehicle through which the mourning Jew (both individual and collective) hears that message that he is not alone and, not being alone, can find meaning and, finding meaning, achieves teshuvah.

According Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin, the ultimate reason for man’s prayer is to pray for the removal of the pain and agony caused above when man suffers below. Teshuvah is deeply meaningful because it not only heals us, it heals God as well.

God is with Israel in her distress as Israel must be with God in His.

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran serves as OU Kosher’s Vice President of Communications and Marketing.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.