Sunday, July 22, 2007

Tisha B’Av: A Muse

Tisha B’av commemorates the destruction of our Temple, the national spiritual/religious center of the Jewish people. It also marks the expulsion of our people from Spain as well as other numerous catastrophes that our rabbis thought appropriate to associate with Tisha B’av. And so on Tisha B’av we gather at the synagogue or other appropriate venues and mourn our national destruction through the recitation of Lamentations and Kinot.

While mourning the national destruction of our people, institutions and the consequent exile for two thousand years I wonder if there ought to be another state of mind other than mourning shared by all of us on Tisha B’av. The Three Weeks leading up to Tisha B’av is a period of mourning, characterized by sadness of the loss of our spiritual center as well as deep sorrow for the loss of life and the deep suffering of our people over the course of our history. When approaching the season of Tisha B’av this observer however believes that confrontation with God is in order, and as such is drawn to the Book of Job more so than to the Book of Lamentations. Lamentations of course is valuable in that it recreates in a masterful manner the very eerie feeling of catastrophic doom palpable to the sensitive reader of text. However, along with that sense of utter loss, of total doom, of Shoa ought to be the emotion of anger.

Tisha B’av presents us with the collective opportunity to challenge God and to emote anger: anger at God for turning his back on his people, anger at a God who eclipsed his presence in the face of utter and total evil. If we view, as the rabbis do, that Tisha B’av marks not only the commemoration of the destruction of the Temples but also other national catastrophes than how much more poignant is the question that we have to ask out of anger, as Job did: how dare You toy with human life, how dare You eclipse your presence from the suffering of the innocent, how dare You withhold you munificence and benevolence from your innocent suffering holy people!

Our prophets were preoccupied with the issue of collective retribution verses the idea of individual responsibility. Their witnessing of the suffering of the righteous individual wasn’t accepted and in a sense was challenged. There wasn’t the complacent acceptance of death and destruction then as we seem to be so accepting now. Amos struggled with the dilemma – how was it possible for God to employ collective retribution if it meant that the righteous would suffer. Amos trying to reconcile the dilemma was one of the early architects of the idea of Shearit Israel; that because of the righteousness of the minority, Israel will be saved. Isaiah too, struggled with this very same issue of collective punishment and although he didn’t frame his approach in anger his rhetoric reflected his deep frustration in the suffering of the innocent. Like Amos, Isaiah attempted to reconcile the polar tension and introduced the doctrine of the Suffering Servant. Israel is not only God’s witness but also man’s teacher. The implication here is that all mankind is intertwined and we share each other burden whether we wish it or not. According to Isaiah, Israel was suffering not because of her sins but because of the sins of the nations.

Jeremiah and Ezekiel witnessed the destruction of the Temple and they agonized over the prosperity of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous. Here lies the tension between the divine sense of fair play and justice of the collective verses the concern of the individual. The dilemma is sharpened when one considers the disposition of our holy writings which taught that the individual played a significant role in the religious thought of the nation. Thus, the people might prosper but an individual may suffer. The conviction that justice would prevail in the life of every man was the foundation of the psalmists (ps.25:12, 13); or another psalm which we read at the conclusion of the benediction over a meal “I have been young now I am old; yet I have not seen a righteous man forsaken…” (Ps 30:4, 5)

The book of Job is concerned precisely with this problem: pitting Job on the side of the individual and the lack of fairness verses Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar who believe that children without guilt are expiating the sins of their fathers. Herein lays the dilemma and why on Tisha B’av we have an obligation to not only mourn the destruction of the Temple but also to process the idea of collective retribution and how it fits in to our theological construct. In the final chapters of Job it is noteworthy that God never charges Job with any sin, nor does He try to explain his suffering. Suffering of the innocent is a reality. This conclusion doesn’t sit well with Job nor should it with us.

Job denounces his friends for defending God in the interest of their orthodox teachings and at the expense of Job’s emotional needs. Job is so angry that he believes tat if he had the right arbiter he could be vindicated before God. Ironically, in the end Job becomes that arbiter who intercedes on behalf of his friends. The message we learn is that for one to establish a personal relationship with God one has to confront God. God favored Job’s confrontation more than He did the complacency of his friends.

Perhaps the lesson we must learn from Job is that while we may not be able to understand the workings of God and his cosmic plan we have an obligation of challenging and investigating to the best of our ability, rather than passively accept that which has been handed to us. Job understands that we can’t really get to the root of the beauty of existence, and but he refuses to abdicate the use of reason to ponder the tragedy of existence.

Job also teaches us that the sufferer has a right to be angry with God, but also to understand that there are many paradoxes to God which we can’t understand such as the dark side of God and on the other hand His everlasting goodness. Job’s probing into God’s cosmic plan, although incomprehensible to a mortal frees Job from the mechanical and blind submission to a greater freedom where he can challenge God even in anger and in so doing forge a personal relationship with Him. Ought we not attempt at doing the same?