A Slap in the Face to the Holy One Blessed Be He?

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

vrijdag 19 augustus 2016

I must confess that this year’s Tish’ah be-Av, a few days ago, was the first time in 54 years (since I was 16) that I did not go to synagogue to hear Eichah (the reading from the Scroll of Lamentations) and recite kinot (elegies written by famous sages throughout the centuries regarding the destruction of both Temples and the many later tragedies that befell the Jewish people).

I certainly fasted, sat on a low seat, and did not wear leather shoes. But I felt there was something deeply wrong with going to synagogue and joining the conventional prayers.

When I look out my window in Yerushalayim, I see one of the greatest miracles in my lifetime and in the past 2,000 years of Jewish history. I see a vibrant Jerusalem with its infinite beauty, countless Jewish children playing in the streets, and Jews sitting in kosher restaurants, laughing and smiling.

When I walk the streets of this Holy City, I see and hear jubilant Jews, young and old, discussing and vehemently arguing about passages in Torah, Midrash and Talmud, as if their lives depend on it.

And I am utterly astonished. How did this ever happen?

We have not seen anything like this in the last 2,000 years. It is so miraculous, and so completely contrary to our long history in exile, that we sometimes cannot believe our own eyes.

We were oppressed by the Romans and the Greeks. We experienced inquisitions, pogroms and an unprecedented Holocaust in which millions of Jews were not just killed but kept alive so as to barbarically torture them and very slowly murder them.

And now, only a few decades later, I find myself looking at the complete resurrection of Jewish life in Israel, which not one of us would have ever imagined in our wildest dreams.

How then can I go to synagogue where the reader chants Eichah to a heart-rending tune, telling me that I am living in a city that has been destroyed and consists of rubble?

Alas – she [Yerushalayim] sits in solitude! The city that was full of people has become like a widow….She has no comforter from all her lovers; all her friends have betrayed her….All her gates are desolate….and she herself is embittered. (1)

Really? In 5776/2016?

Yes, I know that the prophet Yirmiyahu wrote this most profound scroll prophesying the upcoming disaster – as a warning, if the people would not repent – before the destruction of the Temple actually took place. (2)

But in the here and now, where I live, Yerushalayim is a city of splendor, full of life, and contradicting everything I read in Eichah.

How can I, in good conscience, utter or even listen to words claiming that I live in a desolate city, when in fact I look out of my window and am amazed to see Yerushalayim rebuilt so splendidly, as if mocking the Scroll of Eichah?

There is something totally wrong about this. Isn’t it a slap in the face to the Holy One blessed be He, Who granted our generation such a magnificent, colorful, and lively city, with its spectacular views, parks full of beautiful flowers, impressive museums, and luxury hotels, to name just a few attractions? And then we publicly read aloud that all this is not true, as if denying this divine blessing bestowed upon us after thousands of years of disaster and exile?

O yes, all of this could be taken away from us in a moment, and I myself am not even sure whether or not the State of Israel will continue to exist. Nor do I believe in the slogan “Never Again!”

But right now, in my time, I see the exact opposite of what the Book of Lamentations represents and says. So how can I continue to recite its words?

Yes, I know all the learned explanations of why this book is vital, and I agree that we need to study it carefully and read it as a warning of what could be. But I will not buy into the idea that we should read it on Tish’ah be-Av. And I have a strong feeling that Yirmiyahu would be terribly shocked to know that we use his book to express our current situation, as if we are still living in a barren city of ruins.

It is not just the denial of reality that greatly bothers me; it is the dishonesty behind it all, however much we mean well.

The same is true about the kinot. They, too, do not reflect our situation today. So while it is important that we remember what happened in the past, we should read the kinot in their proper context and add new passages that would make them relevant to our own situation. Otherwise, the entire practice is hypocritical.

Would it not be better to replace Eichah with other parts of Tanach that are easily identified with our current lives? Perhaps passages that relate to sinat chinam (baseless hatred), jealousy, and bad character traits, to name a few, of which we are still guilty. After all, it was these wrongdoings that caused the destruction of the Temples.

Are we not guilty of transferring our catastrophic galut experience to our new conditions in the State of Israel, as if nothing has happened since the State was established? Are we still living in ghettos that often resembled the ruins of Yerushalayim?

True, the Mashiach is not here yet, but the radical and dazzling transformation of the people of Israel with the establishment of the State of Israel cannot be denied.

And isn’t that exactly what we’re doing on Tish’ah be-Av? Completely denying what is really true?

It is high time that we express ourselves differently on this solemn day. Perhaps we should have other kinot, stop sitting on low seats, or keep our leather shoes on.

True, we still need to pray for the rebuilding of the Temple as a reflection of the Shechina (the divine presence) living among us. So we should certainly continue to fast and contemplate.

But mostly, we should be aware that the rebuilding of the Temple is directly related to our inner lives and our conduct. The resurrection of the Temple is a direct result of the resurrection of our souls, and it is more important to pray for that than for the physical rebuilding of the Temple.

Perhaps the Three Weeks should no longer be a time of just mourning and not playing musical instruments but rather a time for reading, studying, and discussing passages that call on us to become more sensitive to the needs of others and show more respect to those we do not agree with.

Maybe we should literally go out in the streets and help people, sit down with our ideological enemies and see where we can find common ground, instead of simply reciting more kinot?

What is the point of studying and observing all the laws of mourning if we don’t actually mourn that which is truly the essence of the problem?

Our indifference, our complacency, and our constant appetite for even more luxuries, which never made anyone happy, are the real issues – as opposed to just not eating meat (while eating much too tasty fish, which completely contradicts the idea of the Nine Days!) or not washing clothes during these days.

I challenge my readers to come up with new ways to commemorate the destruction of the Temple – ways that are true to our current lives.

Then, I will be able to go back to my synagogue on Tish’ah be-Av and feel that I am being honest with my God and with myself.

It would do wonders for my soul.

(1) Eichah 1:1-4.

(2) See Mo’ed Katan 26a; and the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda in Midrash Eichah Rabbah 1:1.

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