Tuesday, August 9, 2011

What are we doing today? / Tisha B'Av

Today is the ninth of Av on the Hebrew calendar, a day of mourning marked by fasting for many Jews, but not for all Jews. In our time, darkened by the shadow of the Holocaust yet illuminated by light of the State of Israel, some find renewed meaning in Tisha B’Av and others believe it to be no longer relevant. How people decide is a matter of what Tisha B’Av means to them.

Our Rabbis tell us that five calamities befell the Jewish people in the ninth day of Av: The decree was issued that the generation that left Israel would wander in the wilderness and die there. In 586 B.C.E., the Babylonians destroyed the Temple of Solomon on the 9th of Av. The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans on the 9th of Av in 70 C.E. The last battle of the Bar Kochba Rebellion was put down by Rome at Beitar in 135 C.E. On the 9th of Av the following year, Jerusalem was ploughed over.

That’s a lot of tragedies. Some argue that keeping the fast of Tisha B’Av assures that we will view Jewish history through a lachrymose lens, focusing excessively on tragedies. Some say it’s a sacred obligation to “remember” and we must never “forget.”

In reality, however, the idea that we either “remember” or “forget” is simplistic. It doesn’t work that way.

There is no forgetting. Everything we experience becomes part of who we are and how we think and feel, and influences the decisions we make, even if we don’t consciously remember a specific event. Every experience makes an indelible mark – however small. Every experience shapes us and is therefore incorporated into who we are continuously becoming.

At the same time there is no remembering in the sense of running a videotape in our heads. Neuroscientists tell us that our brains are not wired for that. Rather, we construct “memories” from the bits and pieces of experiences we log in, sort, retrieve, and patch together to build “memories.” How often have you been sure of a memory only to learn that it was actually a different person, or a different time, or a different place? How often have you combined elements of different events, forging a new “fact” of your past? We all do this – this is how our minds function.

There is no complete forgetting and no pure remembering. Rather, there is the quintessential human activity of making meaning. We humans are meaning making machines. We take in every experience, interpret it to derive meaning, and store it accordingly. We catalogue these bits and pieces and call on them when we need to explain a new experience. We construct narratives that often barely resembled actual events but elaborately bespeak our place and purpose in the world.

Our Rabbis constructed such a “memory” about the destruction of the Second Temple and recorded it in the Babylonian Talmud (Gittin 56). The narrative tells us that the destruction of the Temple came about because of a series of small, seemingly inconsequential events that snowballed into a massive catastrophe. Many people were involved; each could have headed off the disaster by taking action and doing the right thing at a critical moment. Tragically none did. Most guilty of all, accordingly the Rabbis, was not the Romans (surprise!) but R. Zechariah b. Abkulas, whose unconscionable and cowardly passivity earned him his colleagues’ contempt. Ironically, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai who could be accused of acting cowardly himself (in the last days of Jerusalem, he had himself spirited out of Jerusalem hidden in a coffin) is the hero who saves a remnant and starts a disciple circle in Yavneh that saves Judaism. Could it be historically accurate that one rabbi is responsible for the cataclysm of 70 C.E. and another is responsible for the salvation of Judaism?

The story does not tell us what actually happened in 70 C.E. It tells us what the events of 70 C.E. meant to the Rabbis of Babylonia looking back from the perspective of several centuries and many experiences later. Certainly the Rabbis saw themselves as capable of having great influence on events. But there is more:
  • In Torah we find the power to interpret our world and find direction for our lives. In Torah, we find inspiration and courage to do the right thing at the critical moment.
  • Our every word and action can have far-reaching effects; we must measure our words and consider how our actions – or failures to act – will play out, and make every effort to do the right thing. Much is at stake.
  • Relationships quickly unravel when small tears in the fabric are not mended and allowed to propagate. (It’s no coincidence that this story is included in the tractate about divorce.)
  • Sometimes we are our own worst enemy.
  • It’s always better to accomplish something small rather than nothing at all. Often we cannot reach the goals we set for ourselves because they are idealistic (that’s good – they inspire us), but accomplishing a portion is worthwhile.
Tisha B’Av is not about history. While there are those who yearn for a return to the sacrificial cult, most of us believe that the Rabbinic tradition that emerged in the aftermath of the Destruction – and could only have arisen because of the Destruction – is a far better expression of Torah. Yet the constructed memory – the meaning – of Tisha B’Av continues to resonate with many. Whether or not they fast and recite kinot, the “memory” of Tisha B’Av – that is, the meaning we have ascribed to it – continues as part of us.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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