Monday, July 19, 2010

Mourning in the Morning

These past three weeks we carried out certain mourning practices commemmorating the destruction of Jerusalem and the First and Second Temples, in 586 B.C.E. and 70 C.E. respectively. No shaving, haircuts, live music, and for the last week no meat or wine, except on Shabbat. Some of us do not wash clothes, wear freshly laundered clothing or shower. Tonight and tomorrow we will fast, sit on the floor, read Eicha and say Kinnot.

Every year at this time I experience considerable cognitive dissonance. We are mourning in the morning of our redemption - reishit tzmihat ge'ulateinu. It hits us in the face no matter how much we try to pretend otherwise. For 62 years we have had our state, and it is flourishing beyond anybody's wildest dreams. Until 1967 it was truncated, with Jerusalem split down the middle. I remember my teacher telling me that the Beit Hamikdash burned down long ago, and I, all of six years old, asking why the Fire Department didn't put the fire out. I was also told that one wall was left standing, but we could not get to it because it was in Arab hands. Later I learned of the armistice, according to which Jews were to be allowed access to the kotel. But the Jordanians never kept their commitment and for nineteen years the best we could do was climb to the top of Mount Zion or the YMCA tower, look out to the Old City and the Dome of the Rock, and imagine the kotel in the general vicinity. Then came the Six Day War and all of Jerusalem was ours. We could go to the kotel, broadened and beautified. We still do not have a Beit Mikdash because two mosques occupy the site, and Israel's government left the mosques under the control of the Muslim Waqf, thinking that the Arabs would then make peace with us. The Jewish Quarter, destroyed by the Jordanians, is all rebuilt and the Jewish presence in Jerusalem is greater even than when the Batei Mikdash stood. Even the Muslim Quarter sports a Young Israel synagogue. Torah study and Torah institutions rival anything that existed during the Temple periods. We like to castigate ourselves for not deserving the presence of God among us that the Temple embodies. However, in fact the people living then were no better than we. A case can be made that they were more wanting. Certainly while the First Temple stood many if not most Jews worshiped idols and Torah observance was sadly neglected. When Cyrus gave the Jews permission to return from Babylon and rebuild the Temple, only a tiny minority actually did so; the rest preferred the comforts of what they had come to think of as home - sounds familiar? And the Second Temple period featured plenty of assimilation of Greek and Roman culture; even the Hasmonean kings adopted Greek names along with their Hebrew ones. The Temple succumbed to military defeat, made inevitable by disunity and internal bickering; for every two Jews you have three opinions. Disunity and internal bickering certainly continue to hinder us today and we need to work on ourselves there, to put it mildly, but the orgies of self-flagellation popular at this time of year are quite uncalled for.

To put things in perspective, just recently the Jewish Press carried on its front page a picture of a pro-Israel demonstration with people holding up Israeli flags in front of the Roman Colosseum! Imagine - Israeli flags at the Roman Colosseum - financed according to some scholars with the spoils Titus brought to Rome from the destroyed Jewish Temple! If only Titus and Vespasian could get up and have a look!

Whose flag flies on top of Masada - Rome's or ours?

The Old City's Young Israel synagogue, in the Muslim Quarter (!), midway between Sha'ar Sh'khem and the kotel.

Finally, here is an armored unit of Zahal, the Israel Defense Forces, being sworn in at Masada.
Whose flag, whose language, and whose fine, fit young men?

I was, praise God, privileged to raise a son who was sworn in to the Israeli Army in a similar ceremony at the kotel. I can hardly imagine a greater joy for a Jewish man, except for the rebuilding of the Temple itself. May that come about quickly in our time, and before I am too old and weak to place one brick on top of another.

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