Feeling the Pain - 9 Av

One of the most surreal moments of my Israel experience lasted all but a few seconds and really didn’t involve me, at least not directly.

The walk between my Jerusalem apartment and yeshiva, a walk that I took multiple times a day, included a series of steps. Little of consequence ever happened to me on those steps, or anywhere else on the path for that matter.

But this night was different, at least it would be. It was the night of Tisha B’Av (9 Av,) and I, like hundreds of others, had gone to hear the mournful recitation of Eicha (Lamentations) on the yeshiva’s hallowed floors, just a stone’s throw from where the harrowing scenes of annihilation and destruction had occurred on two separate occasions (first during the Babylonian period and then at the hands of Titus and the Romans.) Together with everyone else in the yeshiva, I had recited the first set of kinnos (dirges, elegies), and tried my best to understand their powerful message. But, as I had in years past, I failed to make a deeper connection, one that evoked any form of emotive response. Despite four years of study in Israel and three Tisha B’Av experiences in the Holy Land, I remained sufficiently disconnected from the day’s tragic, somber history as to not shed even a single tear.

My perspective changed on my walk home, however, as I made my way down the aforementioned steps. A British student who was around my age was sitting off to the side in solitude, balling with tears. Somehow, he had managed to make the connection that I had never made, to feel the loss of our Temple at an emotional level that I could never approach. On that night he shed real tears, while the closest thing that I could do was groan over the discomfort from my back being out of position for so long.

Around this time each year I often think back to that incident. I reflect upon the fact that both of us had grown up in the Diaspora, far away from the Holy Land. We each enjoyed comfortable childhoods, without much in the way of suffering or persecution. Both of us expected to return soon to our respective homelands, to settle down and build families. But while I participated in “yet another” Tisha B’Av, he was experiencing it similar to those who sat along the Rivers of Babylon.

As I continued on my way to the apartment, I struggled to understand why our respective reactions to the same situation were so far apart. I rationalized that I’m not really so much the emotional type, and that maybe I just wasn’t able to access my expressive side as freely as my colleague. But that seemed to be more of an excuse than anything else. After all, there are many things that I get emotional about, and most cannot compare to the significance of Jewish life in exile.

In retrospect, I sense that the possible answer to my question relates to the following blockages:

  • So far removed – The most recent Temple was destroyed nearly 2000 years ago (70 CE.) That means that roughly 100 generations have come and gone since the last one to behold its splendor. That’s an awfully long time to remain connected, especially as we have been forcibly moved from one host country to another.
  • Will it ever happen? – As much as we may want to stay connected, we harbor doubtful thoughts about the real prospect of mashiach’s arrival. Consider this, from the saintly Chofetz Chaim (Israel Meir Kagan), zt’l:

We live in an age where we lack emunah (faithful trust in God). Despite this fifty percent chance of (mashiach’s / messiah's) coming, we in our own mind see it only as a very remote possibility. In our limited perception, we consider the odds of it happening no better than those of winning a lottery jackpot. (Waiting for Mashiach, Selected Speeches, CIS publishers, p. 17)

If this lack of emunah was perceptible in the more spiritually attuned world of pre-war Europe, certainly it would appear that it’s a challenge for us as well.

  • It’s not so bad – As challenging as life in exile can be, we have gotten used to it. And for those of us who reside in tolerant societies, (which is the overwhelming majority of Jews today,) we have become relatively comfortable where we are.
  • Do I really want it? – This may be the deepest and most troubling reason of all. While we profess a deep longing to return to Israel with the coming of mashiach, are we really ready for such a massive change? What about the lives that we’ve built and the careers that we’ve made for ourselves? What role will we have in the post-mashiach era and will we feel personally fulfilled in that new role?

But despite these excuses, I (and others who struggle similarly) know deep down that these are incorrect attitudes. We understand that we need to be able to say with complete conviction, “I wait for him each day that he should come.” (Ani Maamin 12)

So how are we to achieve this elusive goal of emotional connectivity and lament?

One approach is to better appreciate what we are missing and what actually awaits us. Even the relatively naturalistic view of Maimonides (Commentary to Sanhedrin 10:1) paints a picture of such glory that we cannot help but yearn for its imminent arrival:

The Messianic Age is when the Jews will regain their independence and all return to the land of Israel. Mashiach will be a very great king…He will achieve great fame… His great righteousness and the wonders that he will bring about will cause all of the peoples to make peace with him… It will be easy for people to make a living and with very little effort they will be able to accomplish very much…The main benefit of the Messianic Age will be that we will no longer be under the subjugation of foreign governments who prevent us from keeping all of the commandments… (The Messianic Age) will be highlighted by a community of the righteous and dominated by goodness and wisdom…

Of course, the primary attraction of the bais hamkidash was its unique place as a house of worship, sacrifice, and the Divine Presence. Normative Judaism meant living with the Divine Presence. Miracles occurred there daily and could be witnessed by anyone. God was with the Jewish people.

Ten miracles occurred for our fathers in the Temple: … No fly was seen in the Temple’s slaughter house… the rain never doused the flame of the wood-pile on the altar; nor did the wind prevail over the column of smoke that arose from there…though the people stood closely pressed together in the Temple courtyard, they still found wide spaces between them to prostrate themselves…nor did any man ever say to his fellow: ‘There is not enough space for me to stay overnight in Jerusalem.’ (Chapters of Our Fathers, 5:5)

Another is to develop a waiting mindset. Rabbi Shimon Schwab, zt”l, wrote as follows: “Waiting is of the essence. When we wait for (mashiach), something happens to us. It elevates us, for we want to be prepared for his coming.”

If we are truly waiting, if we, like the Chofetz Chaim, leave our proverbial suitcases by the front door (as the great sage did in eager anticipation of mashiach), then we will hopefully merit to reach the degree of focus and righteousness that will allow us to be ushered directly into the Messianic Age.