I remember with perfect clarity the sensation of waking up on the morning of March 9, 1990. In those first few fuzzy moments of consciousness, I oriented myself to where I was — in the spare bedroom of my parents’ New Jersey apartment, and what day it was — two days after my father’s death. As soon as I realized that I had woken up into a world without my father, my heart plunged into a fathomless grief, like waking up into a nightmare that will never end.
The world without my father was not simply the same world minus one; it was a totally different world. This altered, diminished world lacked the stability and goodness that was my father. This world wobbled on its axis; its gravitational pull was heavier.
The ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av — called Tisha B’Av — is to the Jewish people what March 9 was to me. We misrepresent the tragedy of the day by describing it as the destruction of the two Holy Temples, as if the catastrophe is the loss of a building. The American people do not mourn on 9/11 because of the destruction of the Twin Towers; they mourn the thousands of lives lost in the conflagration. Contrast a person who mourns the absence of the majestic towers to the New York skyline with a person who mourns the loss of his/her parents caught on the 98th floor.
Tisha B’Av is more like a death than a destruction, because on that day the world changed irrevocably.
Sara Yoheved Rigler
“Waking Up to a World Without God’s Presence”
When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh:
“By the decree of the king and his nobles:
Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”
When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened. –Jonah 3:6-10
Sara Yoheved Rigler characterizes the mourning of Tisha b’Av not for the lengthy series of hardships that have been inflicted on the Jewish people and not even for the loss of the First and Second Temples, but for the loss of God in the world. She describes how her son was born into a world without her father, his grandfather, and that he “will never know how the room lit up when my father entered, how secure and supported dozens of people felt because of the bedrock that was my father”.
For the past 2,000 years, Jews have been born into a world without the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, City of David:
In the same way, we who were born into a world without the Divine Presence have never experienced the spiritual luminosity that radiated through the aperture of the Holy Temple. We live in a dimmer, coarser world, where physical reality seems like ultimate truth while spiritual reality seems like a vague phantasm. We navigate in the nightmare without even knowing we’re in it.
It is true that the world is not without God. God is manifest in our world all of the time through the acts of His people, through His answers to prayer, and through His providence in the lives of each and every human being on Earth. Yet, as Rigler points out, the Divine Presence, the unique projection of the infinite God into a finite world through the “humbling” of His essence has not existed in our mortal realm for 20 centuries.
If you’re Christian, I know what you’re thinking. What about Jesus? True. We could say that Jesus was a manifestation of the infinitely Divine in finite moral form. He was the Word made flesh and the Divine Presence in the shape of a man (I say was because he is also our High Priest in the Heavenly Court and he sits at the right hand of the infinite, unknowable, all powerful Ayn Sof; who Christians call “God the Father”).
Yet, in the same way that Rigler mourns in a world without the Divine Presence, we Christians can and probably should mourn being born into a world without a living Jesus walking among us. True, God is only a prayer away and He is with us even when we are too weak or ashamed to pray, but something…someone is gone. The world is created but it is damaged. There are pieces missing. We live in a house with walls and part of the roof “deconstructed”. It’s like being born into a world without a loving grandfather…like Sara’s son. It’s also like this:
“And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son. On that day the weeping in Jerusalem will be as great as the weeping of Hadad Rimmon in the plain of Megiddo. The land will mourn, each clan by itself, with their wives by themselves: the clan of the house of David and their wives, the clan of the house of Nathan and their wives, the clan of the house of Levi and their wives, the clan of Shimei and their wives, and all the rest of the clans and their wives. –Zechariah 12:10-14
Some Christians view this verse as the means to accuse the Jews of “murdering Jesus” and that someday “they’ll be sorry”, but in truth, Jesus died for the sins of all of us. The collective church never really mourns the loss (except perhaps when watching the 2004 film The Passion of the Christ) but only celebrates the resurrection joy on Easter. Where is our sorrow over being the cause of his suffering and death? In claiming the resurrection and everlasting life for our own, where is the agony and sorrow over needing to be saved by his death because of our willful sins?
We were born into a world without the Divine Presence among us because of what we did wrong. Something absolutely perfect is missing from the world, and this side of paradise, we will never fully experience it. Paul said that “we see through a glass, darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12 KJV) and thus, we were born into the world half-blind, only barely able to see the image of the perfect God in the reflection of the Master. Sin distances us from God and the One who man once walked with in the Garden, though still with us, seems so very distant.
I recently read a story on the Arutz Sheva news website about a group of Christian churches that will, on August 13 and 14, read portions of the Torah in solidarity with the Jews and with Israel. We can fast and mourn with the Jews on Tisha b’Av for this reason as well.
From sundown last night until sundown tonight, Jews all over the world mourn destruction but hope for redemption. As Christians, we know our redemption is in Jesus Christ, and yet he has not returned. There are many who still don’t know him. We who are saved often take that status for granted and continue to sin. We have much to grieve over.
Today, we can fast, dining on ashes, and still hope for the coming of God’s glory back into the world. Sara Yoheved Rigler says something very important in her article:
In one essential way Tisha B’Av differs from death: the catastrophe is reversible. As Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook declared: “The Temple was destroyed because of causeless hatred [among Jews]; it can be rebuilt only by causeless love.”
It can sometimes be difficult to rise Phoenix-like to embrace a life of “causeless love” from the ashes of grief, sorrow, failure, and “wanton hate” (as expounded upon so well at the Lev Echad blog). Rabbi Tzvi Freeman says the following based on the wisdom of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson:
Your soul is in captivity when you know what is right and you allow the world to stop you.
Captivity begins by believing that you are small and the world is big. Once you believe that, next you are likely to believe it will step on you, and your fear it.
And then you come to obey it, then to run after it. And then you are it’s slave, thirsting for water for the soul but not even able to remember where to look for it.
To fear the world is to deny the Oneness of the Creator.
Don’t take the world and its darkness so seriously – it is not as real as it feigns to be. The only thing real about it is its purpose of being – that you should purify it.
I struggle to see the hope beyond the loss and yet, today especially, I sit in the darkness and mourn in ashes.
The road is long and often, we travel in the dark.