A (dis)orienting Thought About Tisha B’Av

Dear friends,

Today is Tisha B’Av.  Last night and this morning, Jews around the world sat on the floor and struggled to relate to poetry that mourns the destruction of a Temple we never knew and our own exile which we’ve grown so comfortable in.

I suggest you do your own informal poll of Jews — you’ll probably find that if people achieve some level of sadness in the next 24 hours, it is in reflecting on how hard they found it to be sad.  It is sad to not be sad if you know you should be sad.  The pervading feeling is not that we know what we’ve lost, but that we don’t.  We begin thinking we’ve lost something, but come to realize that it is we who are lost.

The place in Jerusalem where the Temple stood is referred to throughout the Torah as “the Place.”  As Abraham and Isaac approached the hills on which God had been directing them for their ultimate test of faithfulness, they lifted their eyes and saw “the Place” from afar.  Years later, when Jacob was running for his life from his brother Esav, he “bumped into the Place” where he felt the palpable spiritual energy that his father and grandfather had tapped into in their awesome display of faithfulness decades earlier.  This is where he lays down to sleep and dreams his famous dream of the ladder stretching between heaven and earth.

This place was called “the Place” before it was called “the Temple Mount,” “Zion” or “Jerusalem.”

What are we to make of this most innocuous of names? 

One of the many names of God is “HaMakom,” which is usually translated as “the Omnipresent,” but literally means “the Place.”  Our Sages concisely grant us a window into this name by telling us that its connotation is that “the universe is not the place in which God exists, but rather, God is the place in which the universe exists.”  The meaning of His omnipresence is that we exist, so to speak, in Him.  The name HaMakom reminds us of this when we are lost.

We live in times in which we all seem to be searching for ourselves — trying to find meaning.  Even if we succeed in finding that inner quiet in which we can breathe and find ourselves — appreciate who we are — we still won’t know where we are, or where we are meant to go.

Does a letter have meaning without being part of a word?  What is the meaning of a word independent of a sentence?  Or a sentence independent of a paragraph?  A paragraph outside of a book?  What is text without context?

After Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they hid.   Having chosen their own good over the greater Good, they hid from Reality.  Hiding from Reality always seems easier than coming to terms with it.

God played along.  “Ayeka?”  He asked Adam.  “Where are you?”

This word echoes in the opening of the Megilla we read tonight about the devastation left in Jerusalem (איכה).

A deep question.  Where are we? 

We can get so caught up with ourselves.  Our wellbeing.  Our happiness.  Our success.  Our meaning…

Without a reference point — without realizing that we exist within a community of other people — without seeing ourselves as part of the Jewish people — and the Jewish people as part of humanity — we exist in the deepest of exiles.  Not only are we far from home, we don’t even know we’re gone.

Jerusalem is the Origin Point of the coordinate system which we all turn to face.  Without it, we are nowhere.

The beginning of coming home is asking ourselves the question:


Where are we?    

המקום ינחם אותנו בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים

The Omnipresent should comfort us within the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem,


* The above is based on the divrei Torah of Rav Moshe Shapira zt”l

About the Author
Rabbi Jack Cohen is the Director of Education of the Jewish Enrichment Center in West Village of New York City, working to create interactive educational programs that grant access to Torah that is deep and relevant to 20-somethings who are thirsty for it. Rabbi Jack served as a campus rabbi for Meor at the University of Pennsylvania and an Israel programs educator before that. He is currently coauthoring a book on the subject of individuality and self-esteem through the eyes of the Sages, called "Born to Be." He received his Rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem after his BA from Penn in Physics and Philosophy, and earned his Masters in Education at Harvard last year.
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