Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Rethinking Shabbat Nachamu


Each year on Tisha B'av, I struggle with the same question: Should I, or can I even recite the full version of Nachem – the additional insertion recited at Minchah on Tisha B'av? In the traditional text we pray,

נחם ה' אלהינו את אבלי ציון ואת אבלי ירושלים, ואת העיר האבלה והחֳרבה והבזויה והשוממה. האבלה מבלי בניה, והחריבה ממעונותיה, והבזויה מכבודה, והשוממה מאין יושב. והיא יושבת וראשה חפוי כאישה עקרה שלא ילדה.
Console, Hashem our God, the mourners of Zion and the mourners of Yerushalayim, and the destroyed, mournful, degraded and desolate city; mournful without her sons, destroyed without her stations, degraded from her honor desolate without any inhabitants. And her head is bowed like a barren woman who cannot bear children.
After Minchah this past Sunday (on Tisha B'av), the gentleman who sits behind me in shul asked me, "How can we say this? Have you seen Yerushalayim recently? Can we really honestly complain to God that Yerushalayim is 'desolate and destroyed…barren without inhabitants'"?

"So," I asked him, "what did you say? Did you say the Tefillah?"

"Yes," he answered, "but I focused on Har Habayit."

His is the classic answer. We can't change the text, so when we recite the same, age-old text, we give it new meaning. And, of course, Har Habayit is desolate and degraded, without a doubt.

But his solution doesn't really answer the question. The prayer is about the City of Jerusalem. It's about Zion. It's about the entirety of the Land of Israel. And, for centuries, it accurately described the situation in the Land of Israel, which did indeed lay barren, waiting for her nation to return.

Yet, walking the thriving, bustling streets of Yerushalayim, busy with students and tourists, brimming with attractions and unending construction, the prayer really does not accurately describe the true reality of modern-day Jerusalem. It's just not true anymore, and we struggle to find a context in which was can apply words that no longer seem accurate.

This conundrum about Nachem represents, to me, a small sliver of a much larger issue. It's not just about Nachem and the words that we say. Rather, the entire Tisha B'av observance and experience for all Jews today is fundamentally different than it was for the past two millennia.

Throughout our wanderings in the exile, Jews have suffered the terrible burdens of persecution and exile. Galut was, for the most part, a daily experience. Jews were restricted in where they could live, what they could do for a living, and suffered daily indignities from the surrounding non-Jewish neighbors. Sure, there were good times, but for the most part, Jews felt the ugly, painful sting anti-Semitism throughout their lives. It wasn't usually the overt shock of pogrom and forced exile. Rather, it was the more mundane indignity of groveling for the right to earn a living; the daily curse or the small taunt, and the knowledge that Jews would rarely receive a fair hearing in a secular court. 

When I think about it, I find this life difficult to imagine. I thank God every day that I have to wonder what life was like for my grandfather, growing up in Poland, or his parents, and their parents. It's almost too much to bear. How do you suffer in silence each and every day without crying out?

First of all, Jews did cry out. We cried out to God for redemption and salvation three times a day. Rabbi Yaakov ibn Habin writes in a powerful comment in his Ein Yaakov commentary (on Brachot 3a) that the blessing of Re'eh, in which we plead from God,

ראה נא בעניינו, וריבה ריבנו, וגאלנו גאולה שלמה לפניך
See us in our povery, and fight our fights, and redeem us a complete redemption before You…
has nothing to with Moshiach or the End of Days. (We ask for that as well, just not in that brachah). Rather,

We should pray before God for the existence of our nation during this long exile, and for this reason the Men of the Great Assembly established the blessing of ראה נא בעניינו. And the intention of this blessing is not for the ultimate Redemption, but rather for our salvation from the travails of the exile.
Jews lived with suffering every day. We lived with persecution every day. And we cried out to God about it every day.

But that's not enough. You cannot suffer indignities and persecutions and not react and express your grief and your anguish. And we did indeed express that pain, on one day a year. On Tisha B'av.

For most of the year, we suffered in silence, keeping our pain to ourselves. But, on one day in the Jewish calendar, we allowed ourselves to feel and express the pain, the powerlessness and even the rage of constant persecution.

I believe that for the vast majority of Jewish history, Tisha B'av wasn’t primarily about the future and a yearned-for Redemption. Rather, it was about the present; the taunts in the street and the inability to earn a living a support one's family with a head held high. We didn't need to conjure a sense of pain and suffering or think about terrorists or attacks against Israel in the United Nations. Galut was part of the daily Jewish experience.

Thank God, that's simply not the case today. Life is good. I cannot think of a single time in my life when I suffered an overt act of anti-Semitism. Jews work where they want, live where they wish, and enjoy the protection – both physically and emotionally – of a Homeland that represents their national aspirations. So we struggle to give Tisha B'av a new meaning, when the old meaning no longer resonates with our daily life.

Moreover, what's true for Tisha B'av is equally true for Shabbat Nachamu – and perhaps more so. After the fasting and sitting on the ground of Tisha B'av, on the Shabbat that follows we have for generations read the prophetic words of Yishayahu (Chapter 40) who declared,

נחמו נחמו, עמי--יאמר, אלוהיכם.  ב דברו על-לב ירושלים, וקראו אליה--כי מלאה צבאה, כי נרצה עוונה:  כי לקחה מיד ה', כפליים בכל-חטאותיה
Be comforted, be comforted My people, said God. Bid Jerusalem take heart, and proclaim to her that her time of service is accomplished, that her guilt is paid off; that she has received from God double for all her sins.
Throughout two thousand years of exile, we would read this Haftarah longingly, hopefully, looking to the future. "One day," we would tell ourselves, "we will indeed be consoled, because we will have suffered enough."

But today, we read the words of Yishayahu with a very different perspective. We can and do take consolation because we are witnessing the rebirth of Zion. This isn't something that we only hope and yearn for. Rather, it's an event we're watching unfold, in real-time, with our very eyes.

We must still mourn on Tisha B'av. There is much to yearn for, and the exile continues to drag us down.

But, at the same time, Shabbat Nachamu gives us greater hope than at any time in the last two thousand years. Jews have, by the millions, returned home. The Land of Milk and Honey is just that, once again. The words of Torah reverberate throughout the Land, and the Nation of Israel has grown strong, vibrant and energetic.

Nachamu, Nachamu Ami, indeed.