Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Sheni”: Reflections > Family / Jewish Home > Why We Still Mourn: A Matter of Relationship

Why We Still Mourn: A Matter of Relationship

In the past, mourning over the condition of the Jewish People was only natural. Today, doing so with any sincerity demands far more contemplation. The Ninth of Av is a time to consider our relationship with God and our hopes for a world we never knew.

Av 5780 / July 2020

Mourning over the Destruction is unlike the familiar act of mourning over lost loved ones. Everyday mourning connects to our direct experience. Our loved ones are the light of our lives. While they live we bask in its joy, and when it is extinguished we express our anguish in the act of mourning. Our national mourning is different. It is more like a person whose parents died before his birth. He cannot mourn over his parents, for he never knew them, yet he can mourn over the very situation of orphanhood, the tragedy of not having parents. We, too, continue to mourn over our national condition, in the knowledge that something deep is amiss, that things are far from how they ought to be. We don’t remember the Mikdash, yet we mourn its absence.

For many centuries, there was no reason to raise the question of “what do we mourn?” The answer was plainly obvious. Today, however, the condition of the Jewish people is so superior to that of previous generations, certainly in its physical sense but to some degree even in the vibrancy of its religious sectors, that the question has become troubling. Yes, the Mikdash is absent, but what are we mourning? What is so missing from our world that justifies the sadness of the Three Weeks, the mourning of the Nine Days, and the fasting of Tisha Be’Av?

Yes, the Mikdash is absent, but what are we mourning? What is so missing from our world that justifies the sadness of the Three Weeks, the mourning of the Nine Days, and the fasting of Tisha Be’Av?

The answer I wish to explore is that we mourn the relationship. We mourn the sadness of knowing that we are the beloved people of Hashem, yet living a reality in which that love, that closeness and intimacy, is not manifest. We read Eicha—how can it be?—and cry as we express our refusal to simply accept the situation. We mourn, and the very act of mourning spurs us to action.

 

An Exceptional Embrace

The Talmud relates what befell the golden Cherubim when the Temple was defiled by the hands of the destroyers:

Reish Lakish said: When gentiles entered the Sanctuary, they saw Cherubs clinging intimately to one another. They took them out to the market and said: These Jews, whose blessing is a blessing and whose curse is a curse, they should be occupied with such matters? They immediately debased them, as it is stated: “All who honored her debase her because they have seen her nakedness” (Eicha 1:8).[1]

This description of finding the Cheruvim—golden representations of male and female youth that stood atop the Holy Ark—embraced in a demonstration of intimacy, raises a patent difficulty. Elsewhere, the Gemara explains that the Cheruvim fashioned by Shlomo miraculously embodied the relationship between Hashem and Israel. When the nation of Israel did the bidding of God, they would face each other in an expression of love; by contrast, when Israel strayed from their calling, they would turn away from each other, reflecting the estrangement of God from His people.[2] Yet, at the very time of the Destruction, when Israel was surely in a condition of “not performing the will of God,” the Cheruvim were found locked together in intimacy. How is this possible?

The Ritva, citing from Yosef ibn Migash, resolves the contradiction by suggesting that the loving embrace of the Cheruvim was a “miracle for the bad” (nes le-ra’a): “A miracle was performed for the bad, in order to expose their nakedness.” Instead of being separate, facing away from each other as they should have been given the circumstances of the Destruction, the Cherubim shifted to a position of closeness and intimacy. Yet, no explanation is offered for why this was the case: Why was it so important that the Cherubim should be found in a state of intimacy, contrary to the distance between God and Israel that they should have reflected? What ought this unique phenomenon teach us?

The closeness of the Cherubim specifically at a time of exile and destruction indicates that the connection between God and His people—a connection of intimacy, a connection of covenant—is no longer reflected in the reality of our world

The closeness of the Cherubim specifically at a time of exile and destruction indicates that the connection between God and His people—a connection of intimacy, of love, of eternal covenant—is no longer reflected in the reality of our world. The Torah is called the “Book of the Covenant,” the Ark the “Ark of the Covenant,” and the Tablets the “Tablets of the Covenant.” The Cherubim, placed atop the Aron, articulated the intimacy latent in the covenant. The room they were in, the Kodesh Ha-Kodashim, is referred to in Scripture as “the bed-chamber” (I Melachim 11:3). Yet with the Destruction, this representation was terminated. As far as the eye can see, the knot was untied, the covenant broken.

At the time of the Destruction, when the Cherubim ought to have reflected the distance between Hashem and His people, they were thus embraced in closeness and intimacy, as though to say: It’s over. It no longer matters. The departure of the Shechinah from the Mikdash and the people from the Land is the ending of the relationship.

 

Is This Life?

The insight above helps us understand the nature of our mourning on Tisha Be’Av. Indeed, Jewish life today is thriving in many senses. We have Torah, mitvzos, and chessed—much like the Gemara writes of the generation of the Second Temple destruction. Yet, what we lackagain, much as they didis relationship. And that means a lot.

There is nothing more important in a person’s life than relationships. While many are important to us, no relationship is more central than the connection between man and woman, husband and wife. This simple fact is stated by the Torah, confirmed by much research, and known by means of everyday human experience.

Many Scriptural verses indicate the centrality of human relationships, and specifically those between husband and wife, for the good life. We thus read in Kohelet, “Enjoy life with the wife you love through all the fleeting days of your life that He has granted you beneath the sun” (9:9). The Sages derive from this verse that “one who has no wife, has no life”[3]—so deep is the husband-wife relationship for which “a person shall leave his father and his mother, and cling to his wife.” (Bereishis 2:24). In a similar vein, the Pasuk in Shir Hashirim states that “Many waters cannot extinguish the love, and rivers cannot drown it; if a man would give all the substance of his house in exchange for love, he would be laughed to scorn” (8:7).

A wealth of research confirms the far-reaching importance of relationships, certainly regarding a person’s health and contentedness. A good example is Harvard’s 80-year study on happiness, known as the Harvard Study of Adult Development. After many decades of following hundreds of individuals, the research found that “close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives [….] Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.” Robert Waldinger, currently director of the study, commented that “The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”[4] Our happiness and our health are factors, first and foremost, of our relationships.

Positive relationships, simply stated, are why we get out of bed each morning. They give our lives meaning and empower us to succeed in every field, pushing us to achieve and comforting us in times of pain

But beyond anything else, we know this from our own experience. Positive relationships, simply stated, are why we get out of bed each morning. They give our lives meaning and empower us to succeed in every field, pushing us to achieve and comforting us in times of pain. By contrast, negative relationships drain us of a huge amount of emotional energy, often adversely affecting our everyday function and even our physical health.

This introduction is key to understanding the tragedy of the Destruction and our mourning Tisha Be’Av. Our sadness is directed at the relationship between Hashem and us, which is lacking from our psyche, absent from our world of tangible experience. The intimacy described in Shir Hashirim, the infinite closeness that the Cherubim represented, is no more. And what our human, everyday relationships do to our body, our relationship with Hashem does to our spirit. Since the Shechinah departed the world, since the relationship with Hashem ceased to have a tangible expression in the world, we are akin to being “spiritually dead.”

We read in Eicha: “Alas—she sits in solitude! The city that was great with people has become like a widow” (1:1). Loneliness kills, perhaps more than smoking or obesity.[5] And the loneliness of Jerusalem, as a widowed woman, is akin to death. “Her king and her officers are among the nations, there is no Torah; her prophets, too, find no vision from Hashem” (2:9). In words that we could never coin, the Sages write that it is as though God has become dumb, unable to speak.[6] Absent his word, we become bodies without a soul.

Before the Destruction, we used to be the ambassadors of Hashem to the world, bringing His light to humanity as the moon reflects the light of the sun: “This nation I have created for Myself; my glory shall they tell.” And Hashem, in turn, enshrined His presents in his embassy, so that we felt His intimacy, experienced His closeness.

Before the Destruction, we were the ambassadors of Hashem to the world, bringing His light to humanity as the moon reflects the light of the sun: “This nation I have created for Myself; my glory shall they tell” (Yeshayahu 32:21). And Hashem, in turn, enshrined His presence within his embassy, allowing us to feel His intimacy, to experience His closeness. But with the exile and the Destruction the embassy was closed, its operations curtailed. From being a nation upon whom was declared “only a wise and discerning nation, this great people” (Devarim 4:6), we became an object of scorn and derision, of whom was said “Away, unclean one! Away, away, do not touch” (Eicha 4:15).

Certainly, today we are in a special position in comparison to previous generations. As Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe has written, the State of Israel and the Jewish return to Jerusalem demonstrated the falsity of the Christian supersessionist doctrine, confirming the eternal covenant of the Jews and forcing the 1965 Notra Aetate declaration: “The theologians are paralyzed in seeking to rebuild, in an intellectually meaningful way, their crumbled tower of lies.”[7] We need to be deeply grateful for the blessings of modern-day Israel. But despite the amazing turn of events we continue to live through, we remain far from being out of the darkness.

Established by almost exclusively secular leaders, Israel’s formal bodies, public offices, cultural institutions, and public spaces are predominantly oblivious to the connection with Hashem. Like the positioning of the Cherubs at the time of the Destruction, the turbulent events that continually unfold—political, social, national, and international—are ostensibly impervious to the workings of the Covenant. Try telling your non-observant neighbor about the Jewish connection with God and he will likely react that the reality of the world, including of course the horrors of the Shoa still extant in living memory, tells a different story. The distance between our knowledge of the Truth and human experience remains immense.

This is why we cry on Tisha Be’Av. We continue to pray; we continue to perform the mitzvos, and we continue to study Torah. We continue to live. But the inner core of all these acts, the light that grants them glory and wonder, is missing. The covenant, the relationship between Hashem and us, is absent. We become parchment alone, while the letters that constitute the script flutter into the air.

 

Seeking the Lost Connection

On the day of Tisha Be’Av we mourn the lost connection. One day a year, we feel as though there is no hope. But after bereavement comes consolation and with it recognition that despite the continued absence and the perpetual darkness, there remains a great destiny to anticipate. “When you are in distress and all these things have befallen you, at the end of days, you will return unto Hashem, your God, and hearken to His voice.” (Devarim 4:30). There is a way back. And if there is a way back, then there is hope; the relationship, though hidden, lives on.

The Shechinah departed the Mikdash, its ambassadorial abode among us. Yet, somehow, the Talmudic Sages continue to find it among us:

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught: Come and see how beloved Israel is to Hashem: Wherever Israel went into exile, the Shechinah went into exile with them. They were exiled to Egypt, the Shechinah went with them […] They were exiled to Babylon, the Shechinah went with them […] And when they will eventually be redeemed, the Shechinah will be redeemed along with them.[8]

Moreover, while the prophet exclaims that “there is no Torah”—that the word of Hashem, the word of the covenant, is absent—generation after generation of Jewish existence was able to develop and generate the wonder of the Oral Tradition. There is no prophet among us, but the wise were able to take his place and speak the word of God from within their own hearts, fulfilling the prophecy of consolation: “Sing out, O barren one who has not given birth; break into glad song and be jubilant, you who have not been in birth travail. For the children of the desolate will outnumber the children of the inhabited one, said Hashem” (Yeshayahu 54:1). Despite, and perhaps because of the hardships and travails of our exile, we were able to develop a rich and multifaceted Jewish existence that remains true to its fundamental mission—true to the covenant even when its realization is absent.

But while we rejoice the miracle of our very survival, and certainly the miracle of our return to our ancestral homeland and the incredible thriving of Jewry, including Torah Jewry, upon it, we must not forget that which we lack. Our closeness, our relationship, our intimacy—these are still absent, still unfelt. These we continue to await.

But though we rejoice in the miracle of our survival, the miracle of our return to our ancestral homeland, and the incredible thriving of Jewry, including Torah Jewry, upon it, we must not forget that which we lack. Our closeness, our relationship, our intimacy—these are still absent, still unfelt. Like a bereaved mother who, every now and again, takes out her child’s photo album and cries as she recalls and reconnects, we cry as we recall the lost connection. Our mourning, our longing—they attach us to this time and bring its return ever closer. This, perhaps, stands behind the idea of tragedy turning into jubilation, as adopted by the Rambam in the context of our national mourning:

All these fasts will be nullified in the Messianic era. Indeed, they will ultimately be transformed into holidays and days of rejoicing and celebration, as [Zechariah 8:19] states: “Thus declares the Lord of Hosts, ‘The fast of the fourth [month], the fast of the fifth [month], the fast of the seventh [month], and the fast of the tenth [month] will be [times of] happiness and celebration and festivals for the House of Judah. And they shall love truth and peace.’[9]

Today we might be mourning, but tomorrow we will be celebrating. Moreover, tomorrow’s light will appear specifically against the backdrop of today’s darkness; we need to experience the darkness of the present to appreciate the light of future times. It might be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but if we look hard enough, we might just discern a glimmer inside the tunnel itself. Or, as the Zohar mentions, “there is no light that does not emanate from within the darkness.”[10]

It might be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but if we look hard enough, we might just discern a glimmer inside the tunnel itself

The Talmudic Sages teach that “anyone who mourns over Jerusalem shall merit seeing its joy.”[11] One who senses the loss, one who searches for and anticipates the lost connection with Hashem, will ultimately find it—will ultimately feel it. The mourning itself recalls the connection; the mourning itself becomes the fuel of redemption. Insofar as we internalize the lack, the depth of what we are still missing—so we shall merit to live it and to experience it. The mourning itself, the longing of the wife for her missing husband, ultimately turns into joy and jubilation: “As a young man marries a maiden, so will your sons marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you” (Yeshayahu 62:5).

***

Since the time of the Destruction, the Sages teach that Hashem has nothing in His world but the “four cubits of halacha.” Prior to the Destruction, Hashem had far more in his world. He had an embassy, a connection, a representation. Post-destruction, all that is left is halacha—the upkeep of the law. But having kept the law for so many years during which there was literally nothing else, today a new potential begins to glimmer. The embassy is not yet reopened, yet we are charged with preparing its infrastructures, considering its function, and paving the way to its opening. The flash of light that brought us back to our homeland gives us hope, even as we mourn, that great things lie just around the corner.

May Hashem heal our wounds, enshrine peace and tranquility among us, and return His Shechinah to a rebuilt Jerusalem.

 

Picture: Bigstock


[1] Yoma 54a.

[2] Bava Batra 99a.

[3] Kiddushin 30b; see also Yevamos 62b, where Chazal mention many virtues that an unmarried person lacks.

[4] See https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/04/over-nearly-80-years-harvard-study-has-been-showing-how-to-live-a-healthy-and-happy-life/.

[5] Gulrez, Tauseef, et al. “Loneliness kills: can autonomous systems and robotics assist in providing solutions?” International Journal of Swarm Intelligence and Evolutionary Computation 5.1 (2016): e113.

[6] Mechilta de’bei R. Yishmael, Beshalach 8.

[7] Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, Bein Sheshet LeAsor (1976). pp. 183-4.

[8] Megillah 29a.

[9] Rambam, Laws of Fasts 5:19.

[10] Zohar, Bereishis 32a.

[11] Taanis 30b.

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