When Nothing Makes Sense: A Jewish Reflection

In the Jewish calendar, the 9th of Av (“Tisha B’Av”) serves as an opportunity to reflect on the many tragedies of Jewish history.  It’s a 25-hour workshop for coming to terms with what we have collectively lost and endured, and an opportunity to find catharsis by focusing on the quiet promises of redemption that sustained us through such hardship. Often, those who experience it (and, as such, have deeply considered the patterns of Jewish history and their implications) develop an intuitive sense of which way the pendulum is swinging.

This Tisha B’Av, many may feel that the pendulum is currently swinging heavily in the wrong direction.

How they hate us, let me (literally) count the ways:

  1. The Islamic Republic of Iran has been threatening to “wipe Israel off the map” for many years.  The regime, being literally apocalyptic in outlook, has an unsavory history of barbarism.  Among other appalling actions, it has used children as human minesweepers (during the Iran-Iraq War), sponsor an annual day that celebrates the prospect of Israel’s annihilation and hold international Holocaust denial conferences.  They are utterly transparent and sincere in their beliefs, yet, astoundingly, few people seem to care.
  2. The UN (ie: most of the world) is a vocally anti-Semitic, anti-Israeli body.  It produces openly biased reports and unceasing condemnations of Israel, while taking no action whatsoever to address atrocities and genocide in China, Syria and elsewhere.
  3. Many college campuses now serve as anti-Semitic induction centers, where impressionable young students are taught that delegitimization of Jewish national claims supersede human rights considerations, America’s national interest, or even logic and common sense.
  4. Literally hundreds of European-funded NGO’s are operating in Israel with the sole purpose of delegitimizing the Jewish State.  As was outlined in Tuvia Tenenbom’s recent and unnerving book “Catch the Jew,” millions of Euros are available to fund any project – provided that’s it’s overtly anti-Israel.
  5. The odious, and now ubiquitous, BDS movement, which cannot muster even one word of critique for any other nation, has become a staple activity of “idealists” and political activists the world over.

Theatre of the Absurd

In 1959 Eugene Ionesco wrote a play entitled Rhinoceros, in which the inhabitants of a provincial French town slowly turn into the eponymous beast.  The protagonist watches helplessly as the townspeople begin to declare things like “Humanism is dead, those who follow it are just old sentimentalists!”  He cannot overcome the power of the bestial masses with logic and is ultimately left alone but defiant, closing the play’s final act with a valiant assertion that he will not capitulate.

Ionesco was drawn to write absurdist plays after a spiritual experience he had as a child.  As described by Deborah B. Gaensbauer in Eugène Ionesco Revisited, “Walking in summer sunshine in a white-washed provincial village under an intense blue sky, [Ionesco] was profoundly altered by the light.”  According to Jean Stewart, Ionesco “… was struck very suddenly with a feeling of intense luminosity, the feeling of floating off the ground and an overwhelming feeling of well-being. When he “floated” back to the ground and the “light” left him, he saw that the real world in comparison was full of decay, corruption and meaningless repetitive action.”

We didn’t do anything

I have met Jews from great array of backgrounds, philosophies, nationalities and attitudes.  If there’s one thing that unifies such diverse people, it’s their virtually ubiquitous desire for the people of the world to live in peace and dignity, and a hope to simply be left unmolested to raise their families and live their lives.  Sadly, there are very many people out there who seem not to share this belief and are pathologically committed to hurting Jews, for whatever justification that can be provided.  Since 1948, whenever this occurs, Jews in Israel have been able to take actions to safeguard themselves from such hostility, and offer shelter when and as necessary.  As a rule, Israelis prefer not to fight, but prefer fighting to dying.  As Golda Meir once said, “we can forgive the Arabs for killing our children, but we cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill theirs.”  Nonetheless, the victim is held accountable for not succumbing to the violence.  For having the temerity to survive.

What to make of it

Ionesco’s despondency regarding the brute and irrational nature of the world was rooted in his appreciation for a higher, much better one – one in which light, goodness and reason win the day.  When the qualities and values of that higher plane are offered to a “crash” of Rhinos, the result (and the pulverized dead lumps of those who tried to stand in their way) may very well include the sum total of the logic and morality that such beasts are able to muster.

The world, by and large, when left to its own devices, is not such an impressive place.  It is filled with disease, war, strife, discord and brutality.  At the same time, it contains love, joy harmony, beauty and self-sacrifice.  These latter qualities are foreign to our material world and in fact originate in another.  When things make sense, humanity is on an upswing – interfacing with Ionesco’s world of “intense luminosity.” At such times our irrational bestial side is on the decline.  When it doesn’t make sense at all, the rhinos are on the march and the world need beware.

About the Author
Rabbi Adam Jacobs is the Managing Director of the Aish Center in Manhattan. He was born and raised in New York and has lived in Boston and Jerusalem, where he received his rabbinic ordination. He completed his B.A. in music from Brandeis University and has a Masters of Jazz Performance from the New England Conservatory. He is a blogger for the Huffington Post’s religion section and has a penchant for writing and teaching about the uplifting, beautiful and unexpected aspects of the Jewish tradition. He was recently featured in the documentary film "Kabbalah Me" and has published a collection of essays called The Forgotten Light. Rabbi Jacobs now lives in “the burbs” with his wife Penina and their five children.
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