Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Why Am I Fasting? Thoughts on Tisha B'av

This week on my way out of Orot, I stopped and picked up a couple of students who were headed my way. I try not to chat up the girls - they're often tired and just want a quiet ride and seem quite happy not listening to the English podcasts I enjoy. But this girl did want to talk, especially when she heard my Hebrew (and immediately realized that I'm from the U.S.). She had a problem with her relatives who were visiting from Passaic. She wanted to try and convince them that they should live in Israel, but somehow she kept coming up short. After all, they're religious, devoted to a Torah lifestyle, keep the mitzvot. What could she possibly say to them? Truth be told, she herself was struggling with the same question: why struggle here when it seems so easy over there.
Upon further reflection, it seems like a perfect Tisha B'av question.
Living in Israel, fasting on Tisha B'av presents its own unique challenges. While we mourn the destruction(s) of the past and lament the absence of a Temple and a Divine Presence in the world, many of the Kinot fail to resonate with me. How can I yearn for Zion while sitting on the ground in my shul - in Zion? We do not cower under the angry fist of other nations. Sure, there are people who hate us, and nations that wish to destroy us. But it's hard to cry about our subjugation to the nations during the reading of Eichah last night, as I hear helicopters and jets from our Air Force, protecting us, whiz by on their way to and from the nearby air base.
What then do we mourn today? Of course we mourn the absence of the Beit Hamikdash (a well-kept Orthodox secret. We don't want people to know what we really think, because then we might be considered radical and dangerous. Update: Kudos to former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau for telling it like it is.). But that seems abstract, difficult to quantify. What does the lack of a Beit Hamikdash really mean?
Let's go back to my inquisitive tremper. (To tremp means to hitchhike in Israel, so a tremper is a hitchhiker.) What I first should have told her is that it's a mitzvah to live here. God wants us to live here. So, as frum as you can be in Passaic, that's not where Hakadosh Baruch Hu wants us to be. Period. But I didn't say that. I aimed higher.
Ultimately we must ask ourselves what we want to be. What aspirations do we have - not just individually, but nationally? What is our role supposed to be in the world? The Torah teaches us that God aspires for us to bring His word to the world - to be what Moshe called a ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש - "a nation of priests and a holy people." Through our achievements, greatness, spirituality and holiness we have the power and potential to bring Godliness - and God Himself, back into the world. But no individual, no community, has that power. Only a nation has that ability to influence on a global scale. In order to have a chance to make that difference, first we need to have a nation, and only then can we think about step two - transforming that nation into something greater.
Does that nation exist today? Kind of. The Land is there. The army is there. But the desire to sanctify God's name is not. We still haven't figured out what type of nation we want to be. If you think about it, every major debate that takes place in Israel, hinges on this question: what kind of nation are we? We have - since our inception - denied the holiness of the Jewish State, instead preferring to paint ourselves as a western country, with the same goals and aspirations as every other: freedom, peace and prosperity.
These are not the ultimate Jewish goals. Ultimately, we wish to build a nation upon the strong foundations of the Torah. But we don't know how to get there.
Do we wait until the secular society, fed up with the religious coercion, leaves Israel once and for all, so that we're left to do as we please? That would be a tragedy.
Do we work to convince the country to return to the path of Torah, so that the country unites in the lofty goals of redemption and national repentance? That sounds amazing, but it would take a miracle.
I guess that's what I cry about today: our inability to allow our Jewishness to carry the day. That we fast and mourn, but have not yet mustered the courage or inspiration to take this nation to the next level - to become the ממלכת כהנים that we can and one day will be.
That deserves a day of fasting. At least I think it does.
But if that's not good enough for you, why are you fasting today?