Along with the many real struggles of vulnerability and loss during this time, many of us are experiencing the tense and captured feeling brought on by the shelter in place guidelines of Covid-19. Israelis grounded by closed airports and cancelled summer vacations abroad are being lured by a carefully crafted campaign to discover the wonders experienced by travelling the world while at home in Jerusalem. Signs hung throughout the streets of the city boast the promise for those looking for cultural exploration, “Jerusalem. The most chul (abroad) in Israel!” followed by a list of the virtues found in the city’s pedestrian malls, arts, music and great food.
There is rich irony in the formulation of the tourism campaign which depicts the capital of today’s modern State of Israel as so culturally rich, that a visit to the city is like escaping the entire country. Those struggling with depleted expectations of exploring the world can leave the country by heading to its capital. Jerusalem, according to these ads, is the most out-of-Israel transportive experience that the country has to offer.
It is true that today Jerusalem boasts theaters and art that sets ideas on edge, piques curious fascination and displays unique beauty. Jerusalem is home to an exquisite array of study halls and opportunities for women and men, young and old which attest to a golden age of Torah learning. Its marketplaces and boutiques offer colorful and vibrant encounters. Its sprawling parks are filled with the laughter of children, thump of runners and quiet pace of walkers. Cranes fill the skyline as construction abounds with modern building projects and constant development. Walking along a single Jerusalem block with a monk, Rabbanit and Imam, someone donned in leather and another in hemp, a venture capitalist or baker is commonplace. Jerusalem weaves its ancient white stone with the thrill of its modern beating heart. The City of Jerusalem today is indeed glorious.
And yet, on Tisha B’av, the gruesome imagery of Eicha, the lamentation poems of the kinot and the harsh liturgical additions to prayer jarringly speak of a desolate city, pillaged and destroyed.
A 5780 Jew must create an ever-refreshed sense as to what the day of Tisha B’Av, the day of mourning for Jerusalem is. How can we read, listen and utter words describing destruction when the Jerusalem that we experience reflects the glory of life and creativity matched by the greatest destinations around the world?
This national day of mourning is not only a historical marker but it is a call to feel. As we touch each of the moments commemorated on this day, the tragic loss in our national narrative is experienced through very personal plights of the emotional and physical suffering endured. The trauma of the destruction of the first and second Temples is brought to life by the image of the starving parents and their hungry children. The struggles of a people exiled is expressed through desperate souls wondering the city looking for connection and the mocking image of wild foxes meandering on the most sacred spaces. The image of a quarter of a million vanquished Jews standing at the shores of Ceasarea waiting to be shipped off to the slave trade of Rome and the human anguish of these moments. The historic fall of the last glimmer of Jewish sovereignty for the next 2000 years during the failed Bar Kochva rebellion and the cruel struggle they faced confronting the massacred bodies forbidden burial by the new commanding power. Tisha B’av is the date of the final expulsion of Jews who chose to hold onto their faith brace themselves for a future as homeless refugees in a foreign land expelled from medieval Spain wrestling with the shock of hundreds of years of deep integration as part of the rich cultural fabric of the country.
This long list of historical events and human experiences are met on Tisha B’av to face, to feel and to cry over. Tisha B’av is when the timeline of history transforms into a human encounter. The sensitivity to these gut-wrenching images ensure that we confront our emotions and never develop a callousness to our arc of history and the journey our united nation has brought us to today.
The Babylonian Talmud’s promise ‘Whoever mourns Jerusalem merits to see her joy’ (BT Ta’anit 30b; Bava Batra 60b) is a lesson in what it means to be connected to generations. It is an invitation to commiserate and much as it is to celebrate together. Perhaps most powerfully, this mourning and celebration are not merely two independent states of mind one in the past and one in the future, but they coexist as a combined experience in the now. Still today, thousands of years after the Temple city’s destruction when someone experiences a personal loss of a loved one, the traditional blessing of comfort bestowed upon them at shiva is “May The Omnipresent comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” The power of honoring the pain and relationship to generations together mourning the loss of Zion becomes the gold standard of comfort offered to someone struggling in an acute moment of loss.
The journey of identifying with the anguish of Tisha B’av, the missing Temple in Jerusalem, also brings us to a moment where we fill our minds eye with the grand images of what was and what could be still.
As we stand with the dazzling images of modern Jerusalem and the yearning for more, the prophet Isaiah (56:7) not only depicts the profundity of God’s closeness, but he shares an extraordinary picture where God’s “house shall be called ‘A house of prayer for all peoples.’” Or as the ad campaigns of next year’s Jerusalem tourism industry might phrase it, ‘Zion. The most universal experience in Israel.’