Jewish Mourning, Jewish Literacy
Dr. Erica Brown is the scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and a faculty member of the Wexner Foundation. Her latest book is In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks (OU/Maggid). Erica can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About 25 years ago, I went to the Kotel, the Western Wall, at about midnight on the night of Tisha B’av, the fast of the 9th of Av. There was a breeze blowing leaves across the prayer plaza, and an old woman dressed in sackcloth was overturning the benches so that, following Jewish customs of mourning, all would sit on the floor. I felt that I had stepped back into the pages of the Bible and wouldn’t have been surprised if the prophet Jeremiah walked straight past me. Every year, on Tisha B’Av, I think of that woman and what impassioned her to put on a burlap dress and bring others into the severity of her mourning. Loss like that is hard to experience. It comes with feeling, and it comes with knowledge.
In speaking with Wexner Heritage graduates, one of the great benefits they share of the program is the sense of how Jewish history and ritual come together within a chronology of meaning. Although each segment of the two year curriculum may have been worthwhile independently, it is the cumulative impact of the whole picture which ultimately offers the lasting impression. This larger picture of history and faith develops a certain Jewish confidence in its students, particularly if they are leaders.
One graduate readily confessed to me that before she completed two years of learning she had never thought that being Jewishly literate was even a criterion for Jewish leadership. Now she feels embarrassed that she ever entertained that thought. She wears her knowledge like a second skin, close and tight and part of how she expresses herself in the world.
I say that by way of thinking about my Kotel friend and as an introduction to a brief period on the Jewish calendar that is sadly pockmarked by ongoing ignorance of its history and its rituals: the Three Weeks. The Three Weeks, officially called “Bein Hamitzarim” in Hebrew means between the narrow straights, a place identified in Lamentations as our own increasing sense of narrowness after the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem.
The Three Weeks begins with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz and ends with the fast of the 9th of Av. This period represents a time when ancient Jerusalem was under siege and both Temples were destroyed. The Talmud adds other calamities to the list, including the breaking of the Ten Commandments when Moses saw his people betraying God through their worship of a golden calf (if you haven’t read the book, you saw the movie!).
To honor this period of time, traditional Jews adopt certain mourning practices, largely refraining from group celebrations. We relive loss together both as a consolation and also as a reminder of what to strive for as a collective entity.
Spiritual life in the ancient Jewish world had a center. It had an address. Today, only our prayers are directed to Jerusalem and the Temple that stood at its heart; but once upon a time, we traveled there three times a year to create a collective sense of empowerment and to act as a community in showing our gratitude for our many blessings. On Yom Kippur, we waited anxiously as a prayer community for forgiveness. We thought about ourselves and our guilt as a people, not only as individuals. On Passover, we grouped together to tell our majestic master narrative, not only around a private dining room table but everywhere you looked.
We’ve lost not only the memory of such gatherings; we don’t even remember to remember what they were like. Most Jews today do not fast in commemoration of these times, nor do they even nod in the direction of these tragic events. But if you’re Jewish, chances are good that you base your future on your past. You think about what it means to walk in history as a living citizen of a world that is unfolding. In that story, what is the role of tragedy (besides our acute Holocaust-elephant memories)? How does an acknlodgemnt of past suffering redeem us?
Today we live in an ahistorical culture that prides itself on the present, with barely a wink to the past. We are a young country but also one very youthfully ignorant of the sacrifices that brought us to today. Israel as state is technically younger than the United States, but there is a completely different attitude to the way that the past informs the present and future there. Every stone seems to tell a long story.
As leaders, we too need to tell a long story, one much longer than 1967 or 1948 or 1938. We need to tell a story of utter joy and also not be afraid to tell a story of sadness and loss. Who but the leaders among us can inspire us to think about what it means to be a people and experience forgiveness, guilt, sacrifice and celebration as a community? Perhaps it is time to revisit the Three Weeks, not only as descendents of a scarred history but as those most responsible for sharing a once glorious spiritual past to promote a promising future. To borrow Hillel: If not us, who?