The Ninth of Av and American cultural llinders

by | Jul 12, 2012 | Torah Thought

We are now in a period of time known as “the three weeks” ( the Yiddish expression, drei vochen, may be familiar to some readers). This refers to the three weeks between the 17th day of the month of Tammuz and the ninth day of the following month, ‘Av. It is a sad time, commemorating the final three weeks of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E. The Romans breached the walls of the city on the first of those dates, and three weeks later, they overcame the last, desperate Jewish resistance in the city and the Temple precincts, burning down the Jerusalem Temple.

What kind of narrative is this history? The answer is obvious, but inconvenient. The Temple was destroyed and has not since been rebuilt, not even in the past 45 years, with Jews finally in control of the Temple Mount, for the first time since the year 70. Therefore, this is either a story with a sad ending, or at least, a story whose future, Messianic ending has not yet been written—but it is not a story with a happy ending yet.

As such, it runs against a very strong American cultural prejudice. We like happy endings. Consider the following stock plots from our popular culture: Harry weds Sally, after two and a half acts of mishaps, misunderstandings and misanthropic opponents. The hero successfully lands the stricken aircraft, or rescues the passengers at the last moment before it crashes. Doctor House diagnoses the mysterious malady at the 54 minute mark of the television hour.

Now, that is an American taste in fiction, and certainly, part of cultural diversity is differing tastes in how to end a story. (Chinese and Russian stories have sad endings far more often.) But our generation is losing its sense of the difference between fiction and fact. We are so overtaken with virtual reality in our entertainment, and so addicted to entertainment even in the serious moments of life, that we know the fictional take on history better than history itself; and certainly we respond to it more energetically.

History—the real doings, of real people—does not always give us happy endings. People suffer losses and do not always recover fully. Communities flourish for a time, but also fade. Nations pass from moments of greatness to long stretches of mediocrity. The glories of the Pharaohs, of the Classical Greeks, of the world-bestriding Romans, of the Chinese emperors, rulers of a quarter of the earth’s population; the more modern fame of the British empire, on which the sun never set, of the “Workers’ Paradise” set up in the Soviet Union—all these are gone, like the various adversaries of the little goat in the Passover “chad gadya” song.

Judaism teaches us that the best days are not the “good old days.” Yes, we yearn for the time when “every man sat under his vine, and under his fig tree,” but we know that the past has seen much oppression, as well as the satisfactions of tradition. The true golden age for Judaism is in the future, “when the knowledge of the LORD shall be universal, as the waters cover the seabed.”

To work seriously for a better tomorrow means, initially, to be honest about the past and the present. We need to mourn the real losses commemorated by the “Three Weeks.” It does no good to put them before the “but” in the sentences we construct about our history. The Holocaust is not somehow “made all right” when we end the sentence, “but after three more years, the State of Israel came into existence.” The loss of Jewish independence in the year 70 was not the hidden blessing of God sowing us throughout the nations to teach them ethical monotheism. It is true that we can react to losses in such a way as to bring forth blessing, but that does not somehow “make it all better.”

After the 9th of Av, we begin counting the “Seven Weeks of Consolation,” leading to the New Year, Rosh Hashanah—which is, itself, a precursor to the Day of Final Judgment. The way to move forward from destruction and loss is neither to forget, nor to romanticize, the harshness of our experience, but rather, to live by the timeless values of Judaism, so that tomorrow will see a world somewhat more perfected, by virtue of our efforts of tikkun ha-olam.

—Rabbi Michael Panitz, Temple Israel.