In the Narrow Places: Part I

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"In the Narrow Places", by Erica Brown
21 Jun 2011
Arts & Media

Below is part one in a three-part series of excerpts from Dr. Erica Brown’s introduction to In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks

Shabbat Shalom will feature the remaining excerpts in weeks to come.

Dr. Brown is one of the foremost Jewish educators of our time. Through her writing, study groups and adult education classes, she is helping people rethink Jewish tradition, become inspired Jewish leaders and revitalize Judaism itself.

When Memory Speaks

Of all of the milestones and Holidays that are celebrated or commemorated by the Jewish calendar, no time period is more neglected than that of the “Three Weeks.” This snatch of mid-summer anxiety is virtually unknown outside of the observant Jewish community; perhaps in some far-away mental archive the term “Tisha B’Av,” the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, registers as a Jewish fast day. The broader time period – if recognized at all – is for only the “very religious.” Many other rituals, formerly regarded as limited to the domain of the intensely pious, have made their way into broader Jewish culture; even if they are not observed, they at least garner some recognition. Tisha B’Av and the Three Week period do not. Even among those who observe Tisha B’Av, many consider it an inconvenient and meaningless obligation.

Along with Yom Kippur, Tisha B’Av is the most demanding of the year’s liturgy of fast days. It is the longer of the two, and possibly the harder, coming as it does during the summer months. While Yom Kippur is oriented towards both the past and the future, Tisha B’Av seems focused exclusively on the past: along with memorializing the destruction of the two Temples, it jumbles together all the tragedies of Jewish history. Yet there is an intrinsic linkage between the two days. The Day of Atonement’s repentance is personally cathartic. Tisha B’Av’s mourning is nationally cathartic. It allows us to grieve as a unit and then move on, strengthening our national identity by rebuilding from the ashes of memory. In Against Identity, Leon Wieseltier argues that “identity in bad times is not like identity in good times. The vigorous expression of identity in the face of oppression is not an exercise of narcissism, it is an exercise of heroism.” And yet, despite the benefits of such a communal enactment of history, such an implantation of identity and even heroism, the Jewish community at large has not embraced Tisha B’Av.

Why has this day and its surrounding rituals not been appreciated by the wider Jewish community? Perhaps the answer lies in a particular type of amnesia, a willed disregard for tragic history or the past. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik observed that American Jews do not always have sufficient sensitivity to Torah values to achieve spiritual depth.

Human happiness does not depend on comfort. The American Jew follows a philosophy which equates religion with making Jewish life more comfortable and convenient. It enables the Jew to have more pleasure in life. This de-emphasizes Judaism’s spiritual values.”

Comfort is the main obstruction blocking the Jewish community from contact with Tisha B’Av. Yet the selective amnesia towards the traumatic history that Tisha B’Av mourns has not influenced the pervasive impact of the Holocaust on contemporary Jewish life. Indeed, our collective memory seems to stop there: the Holocaust has replaced the history which preceded it.

Perhaps then the issue is also – what is remembered. The Holocaust is widely memorialized, with or without religious overtones, because of the death of much of European Jewry. Understandably, for many, the destruction of a building, even one as significant as the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple, could never compare. But the destruction of a building is not only, or predominantly, what Tisha B’Av mourns. It mourns the loss of an aspect of our relationship with God, the loss of the God who dwells within us, of a religious center and capital city, and the destruction of all those who lived during that period.

There was a time when it was important to know the place you came from in the broadest sense, to have a master narrative of a people as a bedrock for your own values. It grounded you, and gave you direction – if you know where you come from, you arguably have a better sense of where you are going. Tisha B’Av is best observed by those who appreciate history and understand that a nation must look back if it is to look forward. Examining the vicissitudes and errors of the past helps you correct them in the future. Cicero, the renowned Roman statesman and orator, once said, “To remain ignorant of things that happened before you were born is to remain a child.” There is an immaturity about individuals who have no grip on history. There is an immaturity about nations that have disregarded the past and only look at the present and to the future.

To be part of Western civilization today, however, is largely to act ahistorically. This does not mean that we despise history or repudiate it; it is enough to ignore it. American holidays are generally commemorated without a historical context; the rituals that are celebrated are neither deep nor transformational. They are surface sacraments that, in a multicultural society, no longer have the power and potency of a shared language of meaning or of nostalgia. Think only of Thanksgiving and the way that it is observed in America today, and you will see how this sad reality plays itself out on our national landscape. Turkey dinners and football games will hardly inspire a nation, much less a melting pot of people for whom turkey is not part of a national diet or football a national pastime. Memorial Day is not observed as a mourning period for the loss of soldiers; it is a day of barbeques, sales and public-pool openings. There is a shallowness about it all, the childishness that Cicero observed. American Jews are naturally enmeshed in the culture in which they live, and Americans, as members of a young country, do not have a long historical memory. Nor does the youthful American spirit, with its emphasis on moving forward, encourage its citizens to look backward with awe, respect, sadness and gratitude.

In addition, we live in a period that is enormously invested in happiness. Just type “books on happiness” into Amazon and see what you come up with (by my count, it’s close to 17,000). We guard our happiness closely, and do not want to mar it with sad thoughts. We fail to view suffering as a natural part of human life – living in such relative comfort as we do, suffering always takes us by surprise, as if it were an injustice. And as it is an injustice, we look for someone to blame. Sharon Salzberg, in her book Lovingkindness, points out that

we feel obliged to defend our happiness because it seems so fragile, unstable. As though our happiness needed constant protection, we deny the very possibility of suffering; we cut ourselves off from facing it in ourselves and in others because we fear that it will undermine or destroy our good fortune.

Suffering humanizes us. Ignoring suffering dehumanizes us. I don’t want to ruin my good mood by looking at that homeless person, so I turn away – and with that turning, I let go of my social responsibility to him. Attunement to suffering makes us more compassionate. It also helps us appreciate where we come from and all that it took to get us to where we are. We have to remind ourselves that we don’t diminish our happiness when we spend a day or a few weeks meditating on the tragedies of history from which we emerged. We become more grateful, holding on tightly to our blessed lives because we can.

To quote Cicero again: “History is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illumines reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life and brings us tidings of antiquity.” For Jews, these tidings of antiquity are not merely a charm one finds in an antique shop, something quaint, sentimental, and useless. Rather, history is one of the key connectors that enables us to discover a shared life together. And history is not only about that which we once celebrated together. History, in its most profound sense, is the joint language of pain that forms the crucible of peoplehood. In simple human terms, we know that when strangers undergo a tragedy together, they form intense and unique bonds. Something life-changing happened in the presence of another, and both parties may be transformed forever as a result. Both need each other as reminder and witness.

Tisha B’Av is precisely this reminder to us as Jews to take the time to mark difficulties, not escape from them. It is not a great sacrifice to ask people to fast once a year as a way of mourning together the persecutions, destructions and calamities of our nation. Before its renovation, inscribed above the exit of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, was a quote attributed to the Ba’al Shem Tov that communicated what loss of memory costs: “Forgetfulness leads to exile, while remembrance is the secret of redemption.” Memory is our collective glue; it brings us together, united by a common narrative of the past, a master story that advances a vision of redemption for the future. But if we forget, we are no longer anchored by our deepest values and core beliefs. Memory enables us to restate our values in the presence of each other. We are at that nexus in history when we can complete the message.

Tisha B’Av also reminds us that there is a language of pain, a way to articulate suffering. The period of the Three Weeks is captured in the prose-poetry of Jeremiah, in the wailing women of Lamentations, in the protests of Job. Our summer reading is temporarily replaced by more strenuous language that offers us the linguistic tools to speak about tragedy, to plumb its depths and encircle our hearts at the same time. Each year, we encounter these texts anew. We read them into recent news broadcasts and personal distress; we marvel at the way that these ancient voices pierce our modern reality and offer a way of understanding a world that can seem confusing and disorienting.

But Why Is It So Hard?

Even when we recognize the cognitive importance of recalling the past, we are not always capable of rising to the emotional challenge of reliving it. Instead, we often find ourselves immersed in the particularities of Jewish law, reviewing the minutiae of observance, not always as a preparation for this period but often as a distraction. If we lose ourselves in the questions of whether or not to listen to music on a radio, buy particular objects of clothing if they are discounted, or engage in instructional swimming, we may avoid the more essential task of the season: creating genuine sorrow over the incalculable loss of our Jewish spiritual center. We measure ourselves by outward displays of mourning – the unshaven beard, the unironed clothes, the limitations on external expressions of happiness – but the heart often remains untouched. The halakhic restrictions of the period help us structure our worlds to minimize joy but they cannot force sadness; they can only minimize the conditions for happiness.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel (then Palestine), underscored this emotional absence in our observance in a letter he wrote in 1913, referencing those who teach Torah:

Our most talented people concentrated for the most part on the practical aspects of the Torah, and even there only on specialized subjects. This they cultivated and made it the habituated subject of education. The emotional aspect, and more than this, the philosophical, and that which is beyond it and follows it automatically, the illumination of holiness, which bears within itself the mystery of the redemption – this they abandoned altogether.

If those who teach Torah cannot grasp the illumination of holiness, then what about those of us who learn from them? What chance do we have? Genuine grief comes not from deprivation, but from a place of reflection and contemplation on the nature and content of our common historical losses, and the spiritual anguish we experienced in their wake.

Sometimes the deprivations mandated by Jewish law loom so large as to block out the deeper content. The Three Weeks fall in the middle of summer, dampening the weather and the usual summer breeziness of outdoor activities and much-needed vacations. In the minds of many, the period of the Three Weeks becomes a spoiler. It makes demands at a time of year which is usually demand-free – if not in reality, then at least in perception: school is out, and workloads lighten. The adoption of a strict set of guidelines in the middle of this season is often thought of – if rarely articulated – as an invasion of personal enjoyment.

A friend once remarked, “I would trade Three Weeks in the summer for five weeks in the winter,” underscoring how difficult the summer season is for the expression of pain. It is hard to enforce sadness when our natural inclination is to turn our heads to the sun and feel the warmth and relief of a gorgeous summer day. Traditionally, Jews make holiday plans immediately following Tisha B’Av, as if to suggest that sadness is now officially “over and done with.” We await that day after, and through that anticipation negate the importance of the time period itself.

In addition to the pull of summer laziness and freedom, the Three Weeks cut into our modern notions of hygiene and comfort. When the laws of this period were originally created, people did not bathe with the kind of regularity to which we are accustomed. If one is a product of an era where there are few expectations of personal comfort, then refraining from regular, lengthy and hot showers or from wearing clean clothing is less of a sacrifice. Indeed, it is important to recognize that people were not accustomed to being able to control the temperature in their homes, and lived without the pampering modern conveniences that protect us from experiencing the challenging and messy elements of nature. The fact that clothes go unlaundered for nine days may have once been only a slight aberration in a medieval laundry schedule. Today, it is a remarkable deviation.

Fasting is also a challenge. Along with the wearing of sackcloth, fasting is an ancient biblical behavior that was regarded as a way to curb happiness through curbing appetite. Ideally, fasting should remove us enough from our everyday lives to help us step outside ourselves and question our actions and motivations, while not proving so much of a challenge that it gets in the way of genuine repentance and contemplation. In an age of so much food consumption, however, fasting becomes much harder. When one had scant provisions and perhaps ate only one large meal a day, fasting merely demanded a slightly greater staying power than usual. Today, it can become a distraction from our best intentions.

Indeed, the prophets attest that even in biblical times, people often forgot that fasting is but a means to an end – repentance – and made it instead an end in itself. In the words of Zechariah:

Speak to all the people of the land, and to the priests, saying, When you fasted…was it for Me that you really fasted? And when you did eat, and when you did drink, did you not eat for yourselves, and drink for yourselves? (Zechariah 7:5–6)

Fasting did little to change the ancient Israelites according to this prophet and many others; it did not leave any internal marks:

And they made their hearts an adamant stone, lest they should hear the Torah, and the admonition of the prophets…And so, when He cried, and they would not hear, the Lord of hosts said: So shall they cry, and I will not hear. (Zechariah 7:12–13)

Without good intentions and real transformation, fasting fails its purpose.

The day of Tisha B’Av itself is demanding – and not only because of fasting and other physical restrictions. The liturgy of the day is obscure and esoteric. We move from Jeremiah’s eye-witness account of Jerusalem’s destruction in Eikha, the book of Lamentations, to reams of medieval acrostics that use scholarly referencing and cross-referencing to the Bible, Talmud and Midrash. Each kina (lament) poses a literary wall of obscurity. In the aggregate, we feel overwhelmed less by sadness than by incomprehension.

Many synagogues and individuals focus on a selection of the laments for this very reason. This reduces the amount of material, but not the challenge of understanding it. Quick summaries that bring simplicity to the language actually diminish the authorial intent of these kinot as literary puzzles that require intense focus and an in-depth facility with language and nuanced biblical references. One can only imagine the response of a member of the pietistic Kalonymus family, from which many of our Tisha B’Av supplications originate, if he were sitting in a synagogue today as his words were introduced and summarized in a sentence or two, then recited quickly by individual congregants. “But how could you miss the acrostic? The word-play? The reference to Job, and to Lamentations? You jumped over the chiasms and subtleties without pausing, even for a moment.” Those who have studied even one kina with a detailed line-by-line exegesis, will no doubt appreciate that any thorough approach would require weeks of comprehensive study. Instead, we find synagogues littered with people on the floor, bent over their canvas shoes, with their lips moving and their eyes blankly glazed with intellectual dismay. It is the look of being lost, not of being emotionally engaged.

We wait for a kina that describes an event we recognize, or one that uses language familiar to us, or a tune that overcomes the difficulty of the words by joining us in the outward form of a haunting melody. One of the last kinot, now included by many, marks the Holocaust, and it usually induces a deeper level of involvement because it marks an event closer in time. I recall once being in a synagogue where congregants took turns leading the recitation of kinot. The older man who began the Holocaust kina suddenly stuttered on the first words and began to cry. Trying but unable to catch himself, he finally said, “Rabbi, pick someone else to read. I can’t do it.” The rabbi responded, “Better we should have someone read it who has less feeling? We’ll wait.” And we did. I have never heard this prayer more movingly read. Mostly, however, these prayers seem to present a thick fog of language that, because of our lack of understanding, blocks rather than enhances the path to reliving tragedy.

We have never experienced Jewish life with the Temple, the Mikdash. How then can we know what we are missing? To express this more boldly and radically, there are many very religious individuals who secretly harbor anxiety over the very possibility that a third Temple would be rebuilt. Between the notion of animal sacrifices and the denominationalism whose fissures are dividing us, we privately fear what life with a Mikdash would be like. We might find ourselves wondering about the smell of blood, the cost of membership and maintenance, the usher at the door ensuring that we are sufficiently pure to enter Temple precincts. Everything about it seems either a projection of current synagogue life on a bigger scale, or an anachronistic forcing of the past unrealistically onto the future.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein discusses the emotional and intellectual challenges presented by Tisha B’Av in one of his teshuvot, responsum. He was asked about children and their observance of mourning, and explains why children have to observe the laws of Tisha B’Av despite its myriad cognitive challenges. He writes that while children lack the capacity to suffer a loss they have not experienced, we must understand that every year that the Beit HaMikdash is not rebuilt is the equivalent of a year when it has been destroyed. If such is our annual reality, then children are obliged to experience this loss again and again in order to mature into it. If the intention of the season is to pay respects to the Beit HaMikdash, then it is essential to understand that it was a central feature of our past and without it, many mitzvot cannot be observed today. Tisha B’Av then becomes an important educational opportunity. What is true for children is all the more true for adults who should have the imaginative capacity to recreate a lost spiritual universe.

Tisha B’Av asks something difficult of us: can we mourn that which we have never personally experienced? The Talmud illustrates this imaginative capacity with a story about Rabbi Yehudah bar Ilai, a second-century tanna from the Galilee.

Rabbi Yehuda said in the name of Rav: This was the practice of Rabbi Yehuda son of Ilai. On Tisha B’Av eve they would bring him bread dipped in salt and he would sit between the oven and the furnace and eat. He drank a flask of water along with his bread and his appearance was that of one whose deceased relative lies before him. (Ta’anit 30a)

Rabbi Yehuda personalized his grief and made it real. He sat in a lowly place where he could see flames, and he wore the garments of mourning and ate the food of mourners and thus, became a mourner.

Even God, in the Talmud, has the capacity to embody the grief of humans as an empathetic response:

Rabbi Meir said: When a person is tormented, in what manner does the Divine Presence express itself? “My head is very heavy and aching, My arms are heavy and aching.” If this is the pained response of the Almighty when the blood of the wicked is spilt, is it not even more greatly anguished when the blood of the righteous is spilt? (Sanhedrin 46a)

God’s head and arms ache from grief. It is a challenge to recreate history and feel the emotions of others, but if God can do it, then acting in the image of God, so must we.

We are called upon to relive history repeatedly throughout the year. We tell the story of our exodus as if it happened yesterday, and we are the victors. We sit in sukkot to relive the trials and triumphs of our ancestors. We weep at our loss as if we sat in Jerusalem and watched the flames ourselves. In the words of Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, “It is not ancient history; it is a contemporary experience. This is the approach of the Jew to all of our history and its recollections in all of our festivals.”

Our generation has an additional challenge in relating to this saddest day of the Jewish year. There is a modern State of Israel where the three-thousand-year-old city of Jerusalem is a crown of architectural beauty, not a place of ruin. The prayer that the Shulĥan Arukh asks of us when we see Jerusalem in a state of destruction has every place in the Tisha B’Av liturgy – until you actually find yourself reciting Eikha in Jerusalem’s Old City. There can be no arguing that Israel is still vulnerable and its security still a cause for constant concern, but few can deny the paradox that so many lines in Eikha present. The book’s very opening seems a contradiction to the Jerusalem that we know:

How does the city sit solitary, that was full of people!

How is she become like a widow!

She that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces,

How is she become a vassal!

She weeps sore in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks:

Among all her lovers she has none to comfort her…

(Lamentations 1:1–2)

Today we do stand to comfort her, thousands of people of all ages, from the full spectrum of religious expression, residents and tourists, gathered within her walls and outside of them. She is hardly a lonely city. She is a city bustling with people. And yet, the remains of the Temple consist of only one standing outer wall that has become the focus of Jewish prayer the world over. We still have a burning need to understand the scale of the Mikdash’s dimensions and to imagine it and rebuild it to its former state of glory. We do not know what it is like to have the Temple as our spiritual focus. We have lost the connection to God, to the altar of forgiveness and thanksgiving that was achievable only within its walls.

There are those who – to experience the day of Tisha B’Av – force themselves to contemporize it. In addition to the traditional prayers of the period, they read testimonies of Israeli soldiers in captivity or accounts of Holocaust survivors; they watch documentaries of painful periods of Jewish history. They try hard to overcome the psychological dissonance by emotionally generating feelings that are related in kind, and possibly degree, to that for which we mourn. Strictly speaking, these too are distractions. Meaningful distractions are still distractions. They do not have the Mikdash at their core, and it is the Temple’s existence that is the primary focus of our avelut, our mourning. Everything else is of only secondary or tertiary importance, coming in the wake of the Temple’s destruction. Focusing on other tragedies may help achieve the same emotional outcome but is missing the point. It is the equivalent of a child who loses a parent but does not feel the requisite emotions; because he knows he should feel and look sad, he thinks of the loss of something else. He may be genuinely despondent but no one could claim, least of all him, that he is mourning a parent.

The words of Eikha make the primary focus unmistakable.

Judah is gone into exile because of affliction, and because of great servitude…

The ways of Zion do mourn, because none come to the solemn assembly:

all her gates are desolate: her priests sigh…(Lam. 1:3–4)

The city is empty; the roads are deserted. The priests are despondent. The texts of the day help us visualize the loss. The book of Jeremiah also demands that when we look at the destruction of the Temple, we meditate on our own accountability for these tragedies and do not merely place them at the feet of our enemies.

In those days, and in that time, says the Lord, the children of Israel shall come, they and the children of Judah together, going and weeping: they shall go, and seek the Lord their God. They shall ask the way to Zion with their faces towards it, saying, Come, and let us join ourselves to the Lord in a perpetual covenant that shall not be forgotten. (Jeremiah 50:4–5)

These few verses from Jeremiah give us a quick sweep of history – the tears and the reconciliation, the hiding and the seeking, the loss of face and the change of facial direction toward Zion. Ultimately, Jeremiah prophesies, we will form an unbreakable attachment, entering a covenant that will never be forgotten. Attachment always precedes covenant. The emotion creates the bond, and the covenant seals the bond in perpetuity.

During the Three Weeks and Tisha B’Av, we do not only bemoan a recurring past. We also stand in a spiritually secure place, in the presence of community, and ask ourselves the existential questions that every individual and community must ask. And when we sit on the floor and follow the haunting melody of Eikha, we pause at the second-to-last verse. It is read by the congregation as a whole, and then repeated again at the conclusion: “Turn us to You, O Lord, and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old” (Lam. 5:21). We close with a plea – take us back. Reconcile. Bring us to the love and longing that we once had, as individuals to our God, as a nation to our sacred spaces, and as a people to our land, Zion.

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