Daniel M. Cohen

Remembrance Is Just the First Step

We are a people of memory and remembrance. Our celebratory holidays help make sure we know from whence we came. Our memorial observances insure we understand grief and allow ourselves to touch the pain of loss. That psychological and spiritual excursive is, however, just the first step. For memory and loss by themselves are, at best static and, at worst, internal forms of idolatry. Remembrance that allows us to sit in our anguish serves to simply lock us in the past. It does little to honor the memory of what we, our loved ones and our community endured. Remembrance that calls us to action however opens the door to a future of action.

This is, perhaps, best seen in our communal commemoration of Tisha B’av and its aftermath.

Five misfortunes befell our fathers … on the ninth of Av. …On the ninth of Av it was decreed that our fathers should not enter the [Promised] Land, the Temple was destroyed the first and second time, Bethar was captured and the city [Jerusalem] was ploughed up. -Mishnah Ta’anit 4:6

How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow has she become, she that was great among the
nations! She that was like a princess among the cities has become a vassal. She weeps bitterly in the night, tears on her cheeks.

Lamentations 1:1 –2a

The 9th Day of the Hebrew month of Av is associated with five different misfortunes. It is on that day that, among other things, the first Temple fell to the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and second Temple fell to the Romans in 70 C.E. It is on that latter day that Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel was lost for almost two thousand years. As a result Tisha B’Av has long been a fast day, a day of communal mourning that commemorates the many tragedies that have befallen our people. Sadly we have no lack of such tragedies.

The destruction of the Second Temple on the 9th Day of Av in the year 70CE was devastating. It was not a building that was lost that day, but an entire communal structure and far too many Jewish lives that were obliterated. Josephus paints a horrific picture when he tells us that Jewish blood ran in the streets of Jerusalem.

Even now when one visits the Temple Mount and stands beneath Robinson’s Arch one can see a snapshot of the destruction. Carved Herodian stones weighing many tons were pushed from the walls of the Temple and came crashing down. They were powerful enough to crush the street pavers and leave scars of broken stone that, even two thousand years later, are a visual reminder of that sad moment in time. Steps away from the ruined street is a replica of a stone that once stood proudly on the southwest corner of the Temple Mount. Discovered by archaeologists, it bears an inscription which reads, in part, “to the place of trumpeting.” Yes, it was here that the ancient Cohanim would sound the Shofar and indicate the start of Shabbat and festival days. Like that stone, the ritual of the sounding of the shofar from the corner of the Temple Mount came to an end that day.

Flavius Josephus described the event this way

The Romans, though it was a terrible struggle to collect the timber, raised their platforms in twenty-one days, having as described before stripped the whole area in a circle round the town to a distance of ten miles. The countryside like the City was a pitiful sight; for where once there had been a lovely vista of woods and parks there was nothing but desert and stumps of trees. No one – not even a foreigner – who had seen the Old Judea and the glorious suburbs of the City, and now set eyes on her present desolation, could have helped sighing and groaning at so terrible a change; for every trace of beauty had been blotted out by war, and nobody who had known it in the past and came upon it suddenly would have recognized the place: when he was already there he would still have been looking for the City.
Flavius Josephus, The Jewish War, p. 303

How traumatic the destruction must have been for those who witnessed and survived the onslaught. Many, I suspect, lost faith. Other likely found themselves paralyzed by the loss and unsure what to do next. It is this trauma that we recall each summer with the arrival of the 9th day of Av.

But while Tisha B’av is a day to rend our clothing, fast and mourn for all we have lost throughtout the millennia, I am left wondering how the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel in May of 1948 might change our approach to this day. Does the very existence of the modern State of Israel call us to revisit the very purpose of this fast day?

Exposure to trauma causes rupture , a possible regression, and a state of being ‘stuck’ in this free flow . . . called fixity.
“Remembering, Repeating, and Working-Through.” Freud

As we enter yet another week in the Gaza conflict between Israel and Hamas I ask that question with greater urgency than ever before. (Even now, as I was just writing these words the Red Alert app went off five… Make that six…different times and reported more missiles being fired from Gaza at the civilian population.)

Asked another way, What might Tisha B’av look like in a year when Israel needs us most?
I believe Jewish tradition offers us some guidance.

The Gemara (Gittin 56a-b) recounts:

The biryonim (a group of Zealots) were then in the city. The Rabbis said to them: “Let us go out and make peace with them [the Romans].” They would not let them, but on the contrary said, “Let us go out and fight them.” The Rabbis said: “You will not succeed.” They [i.e., the biryonim] then rose up and burnt the stores of wheat and barley so that a famine ensued [and the Jews would be forced to fight]…
Abba Sikra, the leader of the biryonim of Jerusalem, was the nephew of Rabban Yochanan ben Zaccai. [Rabban Yochanan] sent to him, saying, “Come privately to me.” When he came, [Rabban Yochanan] said to him: “How long will you continue this say and kill everyone with starvation?”
He [Abba Sikra] said to him, “What can I do? If I say anything to them [i.e., to the other biryonim], they will kill me!”
He said to him, “Devise some way for me to escape [the besieged city of Jerusalem]; perhaps I shall be able to save a small portion.” [Rabban Yochanan then escaped and met with the Roman general Vespasian.] …
[Vespasian] said to [Rabban Yochanan ben Zaccai]: “I am going now and someone else will come in my place. But you may make a request of me, and I shall grant it.”
He said, “Give me Yavneh and its scholars, and the dynasty of Rabban Gamliel, and doctors to heal Rabbi Tzadok.”

In the shadow of the destruction of Jerusalem Rabbi Yochanan ben Zaccai, still reeling from what had just occurred, stood up, brushed the dust from his clothing and took action. He recognized that grief is most powerful when it moves us to act. He embodied words found in the Reform Movement’s liturgy that states, “We do best homage to our dead when we live our lives most fully even in the shadow of our loss.” And so he stood up, looked at the scarred landscape of Jewish life and envisioned the future. He grieved but then he channeled his grief into action.

Ben Zaccai used his pain to envision the future and do whatever he could to ensure the continuation of Jewish life. He went to the Romans and said, “Give me Yavneh.” It was there that he and his followers gave new life to our people. It was there that he and his followers laid the foundation for what was to become Rabbinic Judaism. It was there that he and his followers secured our future.

Ben Zaccai’s message was simple- “Mourn deeply. Rend your cloths. Cry out in anguish. Allow yourselves to remember, to hurt, to grieve. But then get up. Get up and do something. Get up and build. Get up and do your part to create a future for yourself, your family and your people. Let the memory of your pain motivate you so that tomorrow is a brighter day.”

I don’t think our entire generation (I’m 45) has Tisha B’av felt more real than this year.
[Facebook conversation with Mark Treitel]

I think this is true for many of us who grew up with Israel as part of our reality. We have always known a world with a Jewish State. And despite the challenges she has faced, Israel has, at least post 1973, seen relatively safety and securety. The current conflict with Hamas, the diminished world support for a Israel and the rabid anti-Semitism that has swept across Europe and much of the rest of the world, has shaken us. Any illusions of security we might have felt are gone and have been replaced by a sense of fear and anxiety. Many of us can, for the first time, envision yet another layer of Tisha B’av loss being added to already long list. And we are presented with a challenge. Do we observe Tisha B’av this year only as a day of grief and remembrance or do we allow it to motive us to act? Do we lament… As many of our ancestors likely did or do we learn from the example of Yochanan Ben Zaccai and channel our grief into an even stronger commitment to play our unique role in building the Jewish future? That commitment can take many forms. It can be reflected in taking more time to study. It can be reflected in our working harder to ensure a future for American Judaism. It can be reflected in our speaking out when we hear misinformation about Israel in the news and on social media. It can be reflected by our channeling more of our tzedakah toward organizations that are helping Israel endure the ongoing flood of missiles coming from Gaza.

We are a people of memory and remembrance. We are also, however, a people of action and now, more than ever, it is action that is required.

This piece was written as a letter to my congregation and is included in the just-published The Hope: American Jewish Voices in Support of Israel edited by Rabbi Menachem Creditor

About the Author
Rabbi Daniel Cohen was ordained in 1993 by the HUC-JIR and has served Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel since 1993. An avid technology geek, for fun he writes for the tech blog Gear Diary.