Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Tisha B'Av:The Call to Romance

I was walking home from an afternoon mincha the other day and a sign on a post outside the beit kenesset caught my eye. It was a detailed invite to spend Rosh Hashanna in Uman, including the price of airfare and the itinerary.

Now I know its become quite the thing to spend special occasions at the kever of Rebbe Nachman. But still it struck me as ironic. We don't live here in chutz laaretz ( the diaspora). We live in the holiest place in the world. We live in Eretz Yisrael. And if that was not enough those reading the post live in Yerushalayim and in a neighborhood filled with Torah. Why would anyone want to leave Israel and the kedusha that abounds here to spend a Yom Tov in Uman, no matter how special the grave of Rebbe Nachman. It just doesn't make sense.

And yet the reason is in some ways obvious, if not to a relative new comer to Eretz Yisrael like me than to those of you who have been here for some time . For many, once you have lived here long enough Eretz Yisrael sadly loses its capacity to inspire. Yes, its home, and yes, its loved, but in being home it becomes familiar, and in being familiar only on rare occasions will Eretz Yisrael generate a feeling of spiritual excitation. To be inspired many feel the need to go to Uman to the grave of Rebbe Nachman or to New York and to the grave of the Lubavatcher Rebbe. Eretz Yisrael just won't do it for them anymore.

Yet as I write this on erev Tisha B'Av I think, how sad. Never mind those who live in the diaspora who never had enough of a love of Eretz Yisrael to motivate them to come here, but even those of us who love Eretz Yisrael, and in many cases made great sacrifice to settle here, have often lost the in-love feeling with the land. Like so much in life Eretz Yisrael too has been taken for granted.

One of the troubling components of the Tisha B'Av service is the content of the sole prayer we add to the amida on this day. The prayer is called nachaim and it is recited by the congregation but once a year on Tisha B'Av. The prayer asks Hashem to bring us comfort, to restore us, for we grieve greatly the destruction of Jerusalem.

Whats troubling about the prayer is that in asking G-d to bring us the long awaited comfort we describe the state of Yerushalayim in a way that once was true but is no longer. In the prayer Jerusalem is described as baron and empty, void of inhabitants, a virtual ruin. When the Ramban came to Jersusalem in the 13th century thats exactly what he found. He could not find a minyan with whom to daven. But its hardly true today. Jerusalem is thriving. Construction is everywhere. The city is bursting with Torah and tefila. How can we say the nachaim as it is written when it seems so patently false.

Many have argued that the prayer needs revision. I spoke to HaGaon Rav Yehosua Cohen about it and he said certainly if the rabbis would be writing the prayer today they would write it differently. But we have no one to rewrite it.

And yet even if the prayer is inaccurate when relating to the modern circumstances nachaim has an implicit message that is profound and vital. Tisha B'Av is not about the tragic losses of Jewish History, not the Holocaust, not the Crusades, not the pogroms. Of course we need to mourn and remember. But not Tisha B'Av. This day is about the churban, the destruction of Jerusalem and our yearning to return. That all that is talked about in nachaim. That its sole focus. And that is as it should be.

We need to recall that the first Tisha B'Av was the result of the People of Israel rejecting the land of Israel in the wilderness. It has always been about Israel the people's relationship with Israel the land. Any focus outside of that no matter how noble only serves to minimize the urgency of cultivating the chibat haaretz, the love of the land so necessary to the ultimate redemption.

I heard Rav Benny Lau make this point succinctly and powerfully last Shabbat. If you make the tears of Tisha B'Av about those who perished al kidush Hashem, those of our brothers and sisters who died sanctifying the name of G-d, then you pass-over the challenge Tisha B'Av is meant to have for each of us about our relationship to Eretz Yisrael. If your mourning is for the tragedies of the exile then you don't have to question yourself as to why you are sitting on a low bench in an air-conditioned synagogue in Los Angeles or New York as you read Eicha. There is no incongruity.

But if you understand that Tisha B'Av is about our relationship to Israel, if you read nachaim and feel its exclusive focus on our yearning for the return and rebuilding of the land then never mind the incongruity between the description of Yerushalayim in the prayer and its current condition, the real incongruity is how you can express the prayer while remaining in the galut with no intention to return...or say the prayer and feel the need to go to Uman for Rosh Hashanna for inspiration.

In a few hours the fast will be upon us. Let us mourn on this day that for which the fast was established, the destruction of Jerusalem, the tearing down of our holy Temple, the exile of our people from our land. Let us rekindle in our hearts the love of the land, the yearning for the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash and the desire for the final redemption.

As Rebbe Yehuda Ha'Levi wrote so many years ago the impediment to the coming of the Mashiach is Israel's failure to love the land sufficiently. Years have passed. Israel is resettled. The same issue nonetheless remains.

This Tisha B'Av let us renew our love affair with our land. And may that romance bring about the ultimate nechama.

Shabbat Shalom

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