There is a meaningful Hassidic story that is told of one of the great Rebbes. He called his shamas into his study and proceeded to mark both their foreheads with a black streak. The rebbe explained to the surprised shamas, "There will come a time when madness will prevail in the world. We and everyone else will lose our minds. No one will be spared. When that time comes you and I will look upon each other, see the black mark on our forehead, and know that we are mad."
We are in the midst of the period known as bein hametzorim, between the afflictions. Its the three weeks time between the fast of the 17th of Tamuz and the fast of Tisha B'av, when we are all in a state of national mourning over the destruction of our Beit Hamikdash, Holy Temple and the galut, the exile of the Jewish people from our land.
The signs of the mourning are everywhere. Restaurants are advertising fish menus for the 9 days when we don't eat meat. Barbers are taking vacation since no one will take a haircut. No weddings means no invites to celebrations and no chatan v'kallah, bride and groom.
But most of all you can see it on the faces of so many men in the community as beards are sprouting up and the typical neatness gets covered with a dark stubble.
Many have asked to what end are all these mourning practices. The Temple is long gone, the exile near two thousand years old. Moreover we are back in Israel. We have our land and with it our independence as a Jewish state. What are we grieving? What is our loss?
While there may be many ways to answer those questions I believe the truest answer is the one implicit in the Hassidic story above. We, like the rebbe predicted, live in a world where all are mad. In what way you ask...in that we are overwhelmed with the insanity of the galut.
We are not the same persons nor the same people we were before the Exile. Once we were fused with a Jewish spirit that was uniquely ours, the product a people living with its G-d on its land.
Once we had a King and a Priest and Prophets walked the land. The laws that governed us were the laws of the Torah. We were totally free to be our truest selves. The people, the land and the faith were all in alignment.
With the exile we lost more than a home. We lost our selves in the deepest sense. Rashi explains a verse in the second paragraph of the shma by saying that our self is so compromised in the galut that we only keep the commandments now in order to prepare us for when we return. We are half-selves, diminished by the persecutions and the compromises necessary to survive in a world alien to our values...and over so many centuries. We are unrecognizable to the self who lived in the land influenced by the Divine and free to express the faith without fear or external influence.
Relative to who we were and in a deep sense continue to be, we are indeed mad. And the greater tragedy still is that we are unaware of it...as most who are mad are unaware. We do not realize how much we are a shell of our truer selves, how much the galut has compromised us.
We think "well I keep the mitzvot or I learn Torah, or I daven with kavana." We don't realize that the we keeping the mizvot, learning, or davening is simply an inferior we.
In our madness we need a sign, like the black mark of the Hassidic story above, a sign to remind us we are indeed mad. That's what the mourning signs are all about. The unshaven faces remind us, the closed barber shops reminds us, the signs in the restaurants remind us....we are compromised...we are children of the galut..we are in our own ways mad.
Knowing we are mad does not change us. The knowledge does not make us sane. But it does make us more available to healing when it indeed comes. It helps us place our reality in its truest context. And it prevents us from settling for a fools gold.
So when you walk the street during this period and look upon your neighbor's face remember you are a child of the galut, even if you were born here in Israel. And pray for me and for you and for our people that we may be able to remove the black mark and be restored to sanity.
May Hashem bring our redemption now!