In 1966, the Israeli author, Shai Agnon, received the Nobel Prize in Literature. When accepting the award, he said:
As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the Exile. But always I regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem. In a dream, in a vision of the night, I saw myself standing with my brother-Levites in the Holy Temple, singing with them the songs of David, King of Israel, melodies such as no ear has heard since the day our city was destroyed and its people went into exile…. I was five years old when I wrote my first song. It was out of longing for my father that I wrote it.
The genius and creativity spanning the 2,000 years since that historic catastrophe found its impetus in longing.
It was about dreaming.
Tisha B’Av, which occurs on Sunday, commemorates a number of Jewish tragedies. In particular it marks the destruction of the first temple in 586 B.C.E. and the second in 70 C.E. Following the second temple’s destruction, and the decimation of Jerusalem, and the consequent loss of Jewish sovereignty we built our lives in many different lands, throughout the diaspora.
During those years our songs, and prayers, were of longing. We dreamed of returning to the glory of yesterday. We pined after the once glorious temple where we offered sacrifices to God. We mourned the loss of Jewish sovereignty when we ruled our own lives.
For thousands of years we imagined that one day we would be restored to our ancient land, that our sovereignty would be reestablished only when the messiah arrives and is announced by Elijah the prophet. We held fast to this belief even though we knew it was far off, in some distant future. It was not in our hands, but in God’s. We prayed and prayed some more. And during times of persecution and terror we prayed even more fervently.
All that changed when Shai Agnon and his compatriots returned to Israel and rebuilt the land and then in 1948 established the sovereign Jewish state. Zionism is about restoring history to our own hands. History will no longer be about our victimization but instead about what we can make of it. We now face history’s terrors with courage and an impatience that we can overcome any obstacle and face down any evil.
Hope is now in our own hands.
And so, I can no longer mourn. I can no longer cry.
In my own age, during my own time, the Jewish people have been restored and given new life. We have learned that there is nothing out of reach and nothing beyond our grasp.
In the face of this week’s massacres, in El Paso and Dayton and Gilroy, and cognizant of the violent, and all too frequent, murders throughout our great cities, I likewise affirm, we must not despair. We cannot lose hope.
We must do more than pray. We must end the mourning. There is no more waiting for a heavenly redeemer.
It has always been in our hands.
I can no longer wait another 2,000 years.
We are once again masters of our own history.