Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat Mattot-Mas'ei 5758
Numbers 30:2 - 36:13
July 25, 1998 2 Tammuz 5758
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
My father liked to record in the books he bought the date of purchase. Each book became a marker in the unfolding of his life. Though long gone, my father and I meet often on the pages of the many books from his library that are interspersed in mine. Every year at this time, I take off the shelf his slender Hebrew edition of the Order of Lamentations for Tisha b'Av to ready myself for the fast day. I never fail to be arrested by the date stamped on its first page beneath my father's name: January 12, 1933. Hitler came to power as Germany's Chancellor exactly 18 days later on January 30. The pall of Tisha b'Av descended in mid–winter that year and would not lift till the spring of 1945.
Yom Kippur and the Ninth of Av are the only 24–hour fasts in the Jewish calendar. On both we deny ourselves from sunset to sunset all food and drink, bathing and cosmetics, the wearing of leather shoes and sexual relations. Moreover, the two fast days complement each other elegantly and profoundly. While Yom Kippur highlights the supremacy of the individual by investing our personal lives with ultimate meaning, Tisha b'Av reminds us of our inextricable membership in the Jewish people as we ponder the recurring tragedies of Jewish history. A fully satisfying religious life requires not only nearness to God, but ties to a faith community.
If Tisha b'Av commemorated only the destruction of the two Temples in 586 B.C.E. and 70 C.E., its capacity to appeal to the modern Jew would have vanished. Though it is true that both calamities threatened the very survival of the Jewish people, Conservative Jews no longer pray for the restoration of the sacrificial cult in Jerusalem. The verbal and musical worship of the synagogue surely represents a more edifying, humane and universal form of prayer. But early on, Tisha b'Av began to absorb the memory of other national disasters. Thus the Mishna stipulates already around the year 200 C.E. that the Ninth of Av brings to mind not only the end of the Temples of Solomon and Herod, but also the divine decree to condemn the Israelites redeemed from Egypt to die in the wilderness and the final crushing of the Bar Kokhba rebellion at Betar.
Similarly, Rabbi Isaac Abravanel was to write after the expulsion of Spanish Jewry in 1492 that the last Jew left Spain on Tisha b'Av. In point of fact, all Jews who had not converted were to be out of the country by July 31, which coincided with the 7th of Av. But the coincidence was remarkable enough to allow Abravanel to find a measure of consolation. Order is a key to meaning: There could be nothing accidental that "the expulsion of Jerusalem which resided in Spain" (his phrase, lifted from Obadiah 1:20) was fated to take place on a day set aside by God long before to mete out punishment to Israel.
And perhaps even to the world. World War I – which would decimate a generation of young men, change the face of Europe and set in motion a chain reaction of conflagrations that would not end for 75 years – erupted on August 1, 1914, which that year ominously fell on the Ninth of Av. The carnage would sadly confirm the ancient wisdom of the Rabbis: once the forces of destruction are unleashed, the righteous and wicked perish indiscriminately. The Order of Lamentations for Tisha b'Av is indeed a liturgical anthology of Jewish suffering through the ages, specific and generic, a prism refracting the vulnerability of a homeless people doggedly adhering to its own faith. For example, it includes the grief–stricken dirge by Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, the leader of German Jewry in the second half of the 13th century at the massive burning of the Talmud (the first ever) by the Church in Paris in 1242. His anguish and theology permit him to remonstrate with God. "How could that given in divine fire (at Sinai) be consumed by human fire without any of the perpetrators being burned?... Is there perhaps a new revelation? Is that why Your scrolls were burned?... I am distraught! How could food ever sweeten my palate again after I saw how they gather up Your spoils?" (my translation)
It is precisely that expansive and inclusive quality of Tisha b'Av that makes the day for me a vehicle to mourn the Six Million. The nature of Jewish history keeps the Order of Lamentations from ever being finished. How incredibly shortsighted of us, if understandable, not to have incorporated the commemoration of the Holocaust into that cathartic ritual. In consequence, we are now saddled with two distinct days of remembrance (Kristallnacht on the 9th of November and Yom ha–Shoah on the 27th of Nisan) that are ritually and spiritually impoverished.
And yet we are not without liturgical resources to reinvigorate our observance of Tisha b'Av. Nearly 20 years ago, Abba Kovner, the founder of the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, composed a contemporary martyrology that vibrates with artistic and spiritual intensity. Inspired by the paradox of the Hasidic master Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotsk that, "There is nothing more whole than a broken Jewish heart," Scrolls of Fire consists of 52 episodes of violence drawn from the sweep of Jewish history. Each is recounted briefly in exalted prose and adorned with an evocative piece of abstract art by Dan Reisinger. The mood is elegiac rather than angry. Kovner never confronts God directly like a traditional pietist, though the layout of the book impresses me as an implicit rebuke: a parasha for each weekly portion of the Torah, the grim commentary of history on the word of God, a kind of counter–revelation on the fate of being chosen. Whatever Kovner's intent, he has crafted an Order of Lamentations for our time, an era saturated with knowledge of the past and drenched in blood.
But one day of remembrance, enacted wholeheartedly is sufficient. Three weeks of escalating mournfulness, beginning with the fast day on the 17th of Tammuz, threatens to turn martyrology and victimhood into a world view. The creation of Israel has endowed the Jewish people with an unprecedented degree of power that is ill–served by a festering sense of resentment, an abiding angst over insecurity and a messianic zeal to right past wrongs. To brood on our long history of impotence can only blunt our political judgment in an age when so much has changed and obscure the ideals of justice and righteousness that were to mark the descendants of Abraham and cast a beacon for the world.
Shabbat shalom u–mevorach,Ismar Schorsch
Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.