There is a certain type of mourning that elevates. Just as upon observing proud triumph or awful beauty we feel ourselves wrenched from our narrow horizons and pushed upward toward a higher view, so, too, in recalling or witnessing bitter tragedy are we forced to acknowledge, by the power of a story, that the universe does not end at our eyelashes, that there are larger things afoot that we merely partake in.
One day a year we are supposed to take millennia of things not working out and jam them through our eyes into our skulls and remember that in this way, too, we are Jewish, chosen by G-d, His people, ballast of history, purposeful. The national day of mourning is supposed to be cathartic, a time when we tell G-d that we’re sorry and we’re hurt and you’re still with us and we’re still with you and we have regrets and you have regrets but we can still do this, right? We can finish the mission, together, and all the missteps and dead ends of these desert wanderings will have been our path to some sort of stability.
But for me the day is not release but a laborious ingathering of exiled woe, and I can’t get over my headache.
Tisha B’Av is a punishment stacked atop the historical ones. It is a day of caring that reminds me how little I care. It is a lens bringing into a grating hot focus the post-modern abyss of my religious feeling.
The real punishments of Jewish history were the destruction of the Temple and the Inquisition and Khmelnitsky. But the real punishment is living in a time when we suffer no existential threats and benefit from no miracles of the spirit, when we are addled by not just informational but philosophical overload and we have no great leaders to talk us through it.
The sad thing about Tisha B’Av is my fellow Yeshiva student and I at the Kotel a few years ago where there’s a sort of pillow party, only slightly less festive for lack of food, three dozen voices trying the keening kinot and recanting Jeremiah’s lament. My friend’s angry because no one is really sad and I’m angry that he wants them to be. He’d rather a maudlin show in solidarity with the endless suffering of our forebears, whose pain came coupled with purpose or reason or direction or at least the indestructible knowing, that hard untarnished bone of Jewish identity that cannot be stabbed or burned or suffocated. I’d rather a counting of our blessings, that we get to live long, fat lives unmarred by the discomfort of a real G-d who draws all faces and matters upturned to Him. He wants us to be trivially sad and I want us to be meaninglessly happy, and it is not our fault.
Nothing is our fault. We don’t ask to live and don’t ask to die, and the minuscule range of even our furthest rebellion is decided by the time which is chosen for us. We have been chosen for the tail end of an interminable exile, an exile which colors even our highest dreams of redemption and leaves them hopelessly off-mark.
Tisha B’Av is the reminder that the exile is our G-d, that our happiness and sadness, our triumph and sorrow, are mere variations. Exile had us pinned, and calling it exile changes nothing; it is the beginning and the end, and there is nothing other than it. All enlightenment and escape is just another mode of its expression. There is the infinitude of the exile and its finitude, which interwoven produce the form and matter of this endless unconsummated trudge of a world. The exile exists; it does not exist; our opinions don’t matter. It is still what swaddles us as we drift off to sleep under our LED lamps and what greets us when we open our eyes to (yet) another day. We worship it either with millennia of traditions or rituals or we worship it merely by breathing. We worship it with rebellion and with apathy. Not a blade of grass turns in the wind without it being decreed by the exile, signed by the exile, generated from nothing by the endless bitter exile, for the plan that only the exile knows.
Some say the exile is not a being in and of itself, that it exists only in our minds. G-d is all that’s real, they say; the exile is an illusion. But they ignore common sense, the preponderance of the evidence. They are short-sighted; they do not see how their G-d is just a subcategory of this interminable, intolerable wasteland. If they could see only as far as their faces they would sanctify their noses and declare their nostrils two halves of a sacred olfactory dualism.
No, in exile, exile is all there is, and this is what Tisha B’Av teaches us. From exile we come, and to exile we shall return. We are sad, we are happy, we are good, we are bad, we are enlightened, we are benighted, we pet the dog, we kick the dog, we filter our Internet, we go wild, we curse the truth in our hearts or we denounce lies in public, it doesn’t matter. We’re still in this stupid world with its stubbed toes and terrorist attacks, and we understand our G-d in that context. Stupid Tisha B’Av.
Originally posted on Hevria.