09 Jul An Assembly Place In Time
Hayim Greenberg used his 1951 address to the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem to publicly challenge the Zionist movement and American Jews to rethink the nature of the relationship between Israel and America. To drive home his point, he deliberately addressed the Congress in Yiddish:
“In a sense one may say that the Jews have for many centuries, throughout the so-called Diaspora period, lived more in the sphere of time than in the sphere of space, or perhaps more in the sphere of music than in the sphere of the plastic.
Plastic art is quite inconceivable apart from space. A painting, a sculptural or architectural work, must occupy room or ground; a melody is spaceless.
In a symbolic sense, Jewish culture was more of the historical and musical type than of the geographic and plastic type.
The Galut was perhaps the only example in history, at any rate, the most prominent example, of an ex-territorial civilization.
Upon vast expanses of time and apparently out of nothing more than memories, strivings, and aspirations, our people created such grand structures as the Babylonian Talmud, the palaces of Kabbalah and Hasidism, the gardens of medieval Jewish philosophy and poetry, the self-discipline and inspirational ritualism of the Shulchan Aruch, the color and aroma of Sabbaths and holidays.
We were without territory, yet possessed of clear and fixed boundaries that Jews devotedly guarded; without armies – and yet so much heroism; without a Temple – and yet so much sanctity; without a priesthood – and yet each Jew, in effect, a priest; without kingship – and yet with such unexcelled spiritual “sovereignty.”
Should we be ashamed of the exile? I am proud of it, and if Galut was a calamity (who can pretend it was not?), I am proud of what we were able to perform in that calamity. Let others be ashamed of what they did to us in exile. [Jewish Frontier, December 1951, XVIII:12)
Greenberg’s words describing our ability to live in this sphere of time rather than that of space, or, what he describes as the sphere of music, reminds me of the following verse, how we read it, and then, apply our reading:
“My Master has spurned all my mighty men in the midst of me: He has called an assembly against me to crush my young men: My Master has trodden the virgin, the daughter of Judah, as in a winepress (Lamentations 1:15).”
We read, “He has called an assembly against me,” as, “He has called a Festival against me,” allowing Halacha to define Tisha b’Av as a Festival, so that in the latter half of the day we skip certain prayers that are never recited on a Festival!
It is exactly our ability to transform the reading of a verse and treat our reading as a reality that is the magic that has allowed us to use this state of Galut – Exile, and transform it into those grand structures, palaces, gardens filled with magnificent colors and aromas, described by Greenberg above.
Yet, here we are again, approaching Tisha b’Av in tragedy, suffering, and pain, without celebrating, honoring, or even paying attention to what we have accomplished in Galut.
It is even more remarkable that the Book of Lamentations, authored by Jeremiah the Prophet (Jeremiah, Chapter 36), was written years before the terrible tragedies of Tisha b’Av! Even before the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, even before the people suffered the violence of the exile, we were taught to cry over the Destruction.
Yes, Jeremiah (Chapter 29) sent a letter to the earliest exiles in Babylon urging them to, “Build houses and settle; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and beget sons and daughters; take wives for your sons and give your daughters to men, and let them give birth to sons and daughters. Multiply there; do not let your numbers diminish. Seek the peace of the city to which I have exiled you and pray for it to God, for through its peace will you have peace.” The same prophet who taught us to weep is the one who taught us how to live in exile and build those magnificent structures, palaces, and gardens filled with poetry, colors and aromas. He taught us this before he wrote Lamentations!
Is it possible that only those who know how to weep are able to transform any place in which they live into An Assembly Place In Time?
Is this what the sages mean when they teach us that those who cry over the destruction will merit to see Jerusalem rebuilt?
Is this what the Midrash means when it teaches us that, “On the day the Temple was destroyed the Messiah was born?” (Midrash Eichah Rabbati 1:57)
Is this how Assaf, the psalmist, was able to sing about catastrophe, “A song of Assaf, O Lord! The nations have entered into Your estate, they defiled the Sanctuary of Your holiness, they turned Jerusalem into a heap of rubble (Psalms 79:1).” The midrash asks, “A song? This should be titled a Lamentation!”
We are taught that, Assaf sang because God was merciful, and directed His anger at the stones and beams of the Temple rather than at the Jews. Although the people of Israel were severely punished, only the Temple was destroyed; the nation survived (Rashi,Kiddushin 31b).
I don’t know what it means when it says that God did not direct His anger at the Jews; we spend a great deal of time describing their horrible suffering. For me, the key phrase is, “the nation survived.” We have been granted the magical ability to not only survive, but to thrive despite our horrible and tragic history.
But it is only the one who fully appreciates the tragedy who can honor the power we have used to transform Galut into the greatest intellectual and philosophical and spiritual structures that exist in time, beyond space, that we live a life of music. It is that power that we are using to build Israel, and it is with that power that we can build a world worthy of Redemption.
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