08 July 2012

The Keys to the Door

ercole de roberti's "destruction of jerusalem"
It's not a pretty picture no matter how you look at it.  Wanton death and destruction in the first century was fierce, hand to hand, and the streets generally flowed with blood.  Last summer at this time I was reading Simon Sebag Montefiore's "Jerusalem:  A Biography" and was transfixed in horror by many of the depictions of Jerusalem's destructions throughout the ages.  While instinct tells me to be skeptical when people say there are fewer wars and fewer deaths as a result today, it's also true than an Renaissance depiction of an ancient conflagration can bring such wanton violence into its humbling, if proper, perspective.

The Fast of Tammuz is commemorated today on the Jewish calendar, a day marking the breaching of the walls by the Roman forces in 70 a.d.--three weeks prior to the destruction of the 2nd Temple.  This is the beginning of a customary mourning period in religious Judaism,  based fundamentally on the rabbinic idea (which itself was derived from the prophets understanding of the theodicy of national calamity) מפני חטאינו גלינו מארצנו  that is to say, "Because of our sins we were exiled from our land."  More succinctly but certainly no less troubling:  "We done this to ourselves."

Really?  The vast power of the Roman Empire v. a small Jewish nation dyad leads us to conclude it wasn't a fair fight, correct? And that an Omnipotent Creator of the Universe "chose" not to intercede as he had in Egypt during the Exodus, leaves us with the conclusion that he's either Impotent or he sat this one out and let us have it because, well, we deserved it.  Take your pick.

I believe neither.  Somewhere in between is a moral God who animates existence, informs choice, and who mandates action but who never intercedes, certainly not in the way we learn about in Exodus.  And this the Sages faced in their own time, agonizingly determined to keep hold of their faith while at the same time not indicting God for his own sin of omission they dared not utter--not getting off his stool for the final round.  Towel thrown.  Bell rung.  Fight over.


I learned from the scholar Michael Fishbane in the summer of 1995.  Among the many texts we studied closely that summer was one particular rabbinic midrash in which the Sages depicted God's thinking at the time of the Destruction as "choosing Exile with Israel" in order to comfort them and continue to teach them.

To wit.  The certainty of traditional faith, expressed in one place by the Psalmist-- "The Lord answer thee in the day of trouble...He will answer him from His holy heaven, with mighty acts of his saving right hand."  (Psalm 20:2/7) is in another place the very words of anguish and fear of abandonment--"How long O God shall the adversary reproach?  Shall the enemy blaspheme thy name forever?  Why withdrawest Thou Thy hand?  Draw it out of Thy bosom and consume them!"  (Psalm 74:10-11)

The right hand, symbol of strength, has disappeared.  It has either been severed by the enemy (unthinkable!) or God has withdrawn it, has allowed for his beloved's destruction, in order to teach a new lesson to the people.  And in this destruction are the seeds of redemption.  In the midrash God cries like a mother for her child in labor--the labor of exile.  Isaiah is brought to bear to argue that in fact even God mourns the exile, "to weeping, and to lamentation, and to baldness and to girding with sackcloth" (Isaiah 22:12).

The internalized mourning of the God--through word and prayer--is brought into the Jew; and the Jew, therefore, has no choice but to accept that radical internalization of the Divine, and like God, take ultimate responsibility for his own actions.  The Sages, after all, point out that Moses is said to have destroyed the Ten Commandments on this day as well.  In anger at seeing the idolatry of the Golden Calf, he hurled to pieces the very words that were to guide the people.  In Exodus, the punishment described is for the sinners to ingest the broken pieces, to consume the very words they disobeyed.  A radical internalization indeed!

There is something terrifically human about this; inspiringly optimistic; and downright Zionist as well.  The dreamers who built the nation that enchants and tortures those in exile like us did exactly as what we would expect of Jews in exile to do:  they took responsibility for their actions, built a country, and went home.

The fascination and privilege of being alive to see it in our day is to allow those questions of ultimate responsibility to always be asked.

Questions like:  Is everything being done in the name of Justice and Peace?  Are the poor being fed?  The homeless being sheltered?  The rights of the "widow and the orphan" being defended against the mighty and powerful?

Those who protest for fair housing and wages in Tel Aviv; who struggle to ensure that borders are protected in a humane way; who fight for the right of a woman to ride a bus or walk down a sidewalk unmolested; who both defend Israel but work for peace; all of those are actions of those seeking responsibility, who hear the voice of exile calling but implore with their words and their deeds that this time, God's hand is not withheld.

This day is a terrible day but a necessary reminder that we hold the keys--always--to the door that leads us home.

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