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From an I to a we

“If I Forget You Jerusalem —
Then let it be that I forget My right hand”
— Psalm 137

When Shabbos comes to a close this week, Tisha b’Av will begin. Our national day of heartache and mourning over the destruction of both of our Holy Temples, the structures embodying a mystical connection between earth and the Divine presence, gone. Many other tragedies throughout Jewish history followed on this sad sad day. We never forget. For it is a different world we live in without the holiness of the Temple. Without the Temple, we now live in a world of “hester panim” — a world where G-d’s presence is no longer overt in our world. In a word: concealment.

But we never forget. A story, perhaps urban legend, is told of Napoleon and the Jewish people.

One night in Paris, Napoleon and his entourage were walking through the streets when sounds of weeping were heard from a nearby synagogue. Napoleon and his people entered the synagogue to inquire about it, and were shocked at what they saw: A congregation of Jews sitting on the floor crying, mourning over the destruction of the temple.

Indignant at not being informed of this significant loss to the Jewish people, Napoleon proceeded to ask about the temple, when and how it was destroyed.

When the reply from this group of Jews sitting before him with hot tears of pain on their faces came that it’s the Temple of Jerusalem — destroyed 1,700 years earlier, Napoleon fell silent. Before leaving the synagogue his parting words to this group of Jews were: Surely, a people that for so many years is capable of crying over their lost Temple, will survive to find their way back to their homeland and see their Temple rebuilt.

Here we are, still in exile, without our temple. And we know the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred. The First Temple was destroyed for lack of observance of sins between man and G-d — and then the temple was rebuilt 70 years later.

The Second Temple was destroyed because we lacked love and compassion for one another, because we did not honor the interpersonal mitzvot, the mitzvot of bein adam l’chaveiro — and here we are, still waiting, as a people, in limbo, homeless, in bitter exile.

Obviously, these commandments of love and sensitivity and reconciliation and forgiveness between people, are the harder challenge.

The book of Genesis opens with closeness and intimacy in the Garden of Eden, but then follow the dissension and conflict of Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Isaac and Ishmael, and Joseph and his brothers. We begin with love and unity, but as the book unfolds, we encounter torn relationships replete with pain, jealousy, and distance.

Throughout his writings, the Sfas Emes emphasizes that our purpose on earth is a sense of mission, to promote behavoirs that are repairing, that re-enter us, that return us to the wholeness of the world of the Garden of Eden, prior to the expulsion that was caused by sin.
So how do we find our way back?

Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kuk teaches that if baseless hatred destroyed the Temple, then what we need to do to rebuild it is the opposite: nothing less than baseless love. To find love in our hearts for “the other” among us, or for the stranger among us.

That is not easy — it takes such hard work of delving deep inside ourselves and taking an honest look at who we actually are, versus who we think we are.
It means trying to get along with all those in the community who are different.

It means, even if you were the “right” one in a fight, instead of nursing the pain and letting it fester, you swallow hard and say, “I’m sorry” — and mean it. Or, you’re open to accepting someone else’s “I’m sorry.”

As stubborn and full of pride we are as human creatures, these are some of the most challenging moments we encounter with ourselves and our loved ones. And so, these challenging moments have the potential to become those transformative moments, those moments of repair, of honor, of holiness, of closeness.

How do we go about such transformations? On Tisha b’Av we will sit on the floor, by candlelight, and read that beautiful, that mournful scroll of Lamentations. O that melancholy chant! Lamentations, the sages say, when the punctuation is shifted, can also be read as “ayeka” — where are you? This reading of the word is expressive of the voices of the people living in the aftermath of the destruction of the First Temple. With this reading, Lamentations conveys a sense of abandonment and disorientation felt by the people.

You get the sense that Lamentations is an eye witness account. It is a scroll of poetry lamenting the destruction from an emotional perspective. It is not a book of theology — not an attempt to answer questions. It is a scroll about suffering, pain, outrage and how we grapple with these feelings. It illustrates how a religious person deals with grief. From the outset, to the conclusion, a vast sense of anguish permeates.

And yet . . . there is a point of transformation within this scroll.

Lamentations begins with a sense of eerie desolation, emptiness. Jerusalem is personified — we view Jerusalem as a reflection of ourselves. Jeremiah is addressing a generation of survivors. Perhaps it is too early, too raw, for them to look at themselves and see their contribution to the causes of destruction. So Jeremiah focuses them on Jerusalem. Jeremiah personifies the city as a widow. She evokes feelings of aloneness, of feeling abandoned, of anger.

Why align the people with this status? Because Jeremiah is trying to elicit a response from the people — to bring them back to G-d.

Jeremiah is trying to prepare the people, shake them up for the middle chapter of the scroll — chapter three, the epicenter.

In chapter three, one individual is speaking. This story is the story of the individual — it is different from every other chapter. In contrast to all the other chapters, chapter three does not begin with the word “Lamentations.”

Chapter three is the honest story of how the individual copes and contends with tragedy in a theological context. How one allows tragedy to effect, to shape one’s spiritual life.

In this chapter there is no mention of of Jerusalem, of the Temple, of the priests, of the Jewish people, of exile, of starvation, of national tragedy.

It is “ani hagever” — the story of one man’s tragedy — any man in Israel.

It could very well be that Jeremiah drew from his own tragic life in order to compose this chapter.

At the outset, the sufferer describes himself and his feelings. There are three dominant images used to depict them: encirclement, feeling of entrapment; animals and predators, a feeling of being ambushed; darkness, a feeling of loss like the windows of the heaven have closed.

The real, visceral words of this this human being express his perception of an all pervasive “hester panim” — concealment of G-d.

His depiction is of G-d as an animal, like an enemy, a predator with man arbitrarily becoming prey — a sense of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. There is no rhyme or reason, this is how the cookie crumbles — an overwhelming sense of injustice.

The darkness signals this lack of orientation, of confusion and aimlessness. That sense of being left behind in utter darkness. And the encirclement — being trapped, rejected and shut out.

Even prayer does not allow an escape (“even when I cry and call for help he stops up my prayer”).

Within these painful images at the beginning of this powerful chapter the person, the “gever” is an “I.” There is no sense or presence of anyone else. The “gever” is alone.

Then things begin to shift. G-d is no longer an animal — but he is an enemy. The pain and suffering is deliberate, a calculated attempt by G-d. Now it’s G-d who wanted to shoot me! The suffering is no longer arbitrary. Despite the description of this “gever’s” grappling with desperate pain and suffering, there seems to be a change. He realizes that G-d is not acting like an animal, but, rather G-d is rationally and deliberately selecting him for these painful experiences and feelings.

Although this increases the sense of abandonment and despair, theologically, it is a progression.

It is the “gever’s” step forward in engaging in relationship with G-d.

When I read this chapter I picture a man lying on the floor — paralyzed, depressed, feeling the despair of never finding the strength to go on. I visualize him confined in a narrow space (“meitzarim”) — all hope is lost.

How does he go on? Is there a change? If there is — what precipitates it? For the first 17 verses of this chapter, G-d’s name is conspicuously absent. A profound sense of alienation from G-d permeates.

Then, suddenly, this “gever” stops for a moment and utters: “G-d.”

And with this one utterance, a new part of this “gever’s” journey is born. By evoking G-d’s name — the painful realization of his aloneness, he is struck by what he has lived without for the past 17 verses. As Elie Wiesel says, “You could live with G-d or against G-d, but you can’t be without G-d.”

And with this first movement of embracing G-d, hope is regained. By thinking of G-d’s way, by mentioning G-d’s name, the “gever” is now launched forward. Once G-d is in the picture, on his lips, the “gever” can now embark on a journey of recollection — of remembering. And indeed, the “gever” proceeds to express his various memories of his affliction and misery. Remembering.

There is a sense of distance in order to remember. The pain now no longer a living breathing part of his experience. It is no longer in the here and now.

And as this “gever” thinks more deeply, something more humble opens up within him. At first, the pain was so primal. We heard an outcry, and so the “gever” was unable to reach a place of remembering. Although part of our healing is to feel like crying out, “ayeka” — where are you?, it is when we recede from this emotional place of asking “ayeka” that we begin to unlock the memories. And often, when we remember, we fall silent. Now the “gever” falls silent.

“I am the man” — “Ani hagever” opened the chapter effusively, expressing his pain. He then found a way to say “Hashem” — to turn to G-d. Then came the flood of memories. And now — silence.

At the center of this chapter the “gever” is silent. He is reflective and introspecting. He is trying to examine what this experience has meant to him, realizing his tragedy and the prism through which he now views the world, life, G-d. This rumination of the “gever” now concludes with a contemplation. He understands G-d is not simply crushing, thoughtless, or arbitrary.

As a consequence of the “gever’s” grappling, he now has hope in a G-d who is merciful and just. He understands that his painful experiences of sin or alienation have some meaning and purpose. He knows for certain that instead of externalizing blame he must self reflect, look inward, and introspect. Not necessarily for an answer — but for a relationship between him and G-d to take root.

These are the his words: “Let us search and try our ways, and turn back to G-d.” No longer “ani hagever” — the lone searing voice of the “I” — now the “gever” is speaking as a “we.” Aside from the conclusion to the scroll of Lamentations, this is the only place in the entire scroll the word “we” appears.

The “gever” has recovered his relationship and connection to the people. He now identifies with the community. There is a correlation between the his healing, reopening his relationship to G-d, and his realignment with the people, with the community.

When it comes to prayer, a community has different rights when it comes to turning to G-d. We pray in the collective, as a “we.” We are not judged solely on our own merit. When we stand before G-d as a “we,” we are another creation altogether.

We stand before G-d as “Knesset Yisrael” — as the Jewish people. We exist, we speak, we pray differently as a “we” than we do as an “I.” A grievance in the mouth of an “I” becomes a supplication from the mouth of the “we.”

“I” — is just me, a mortal human being with my faults, sins, flaws. But as a “we”? “We” we are potentially a mighty, beautiful and majestic people.

Although by the end of the chapter the “gever” returns to the individual “I” — “my eye runs down with rivers of water” — he is a transformed “I.” Now, in contrast to the self-absorbed pain of the “gever” at the beginning, his “I” is one of an advocate for his people. Why are his tears running like a river? “For the brokenness of the daughter of my people.”

And a stubborn advocate he is. He basically says to G-d: I’m not going to stop crying until you — G-d — are watching.

This, along with the phrase “look at me, G-d” — mentioned over and over throughout the chapter, highlighting man’s sense of invisibility to G-d, his abandonment. By the end of the chapter we see the situation has not externally changed, as in the book of Job where there is a sense of restoration — here the struggles remains physically, spiritually and emotionally. The “gever” has changed and now his dialogue with G-d is one of prayer, as a representative of the anguish of his people.

“Ani hagever” — from painful human struggle and spiritual isolation, to advocate for a community. From an “I” to a “we.” In the words of Rabbi Soloveitchik: The “gever” has shifted from being “a man of fate to a man of destiny.” The chapter begins with “I,” and concludes with “G-d.”

G-d is very distant after the scroll of Lamentations — after the destruction of the two temples. On Yom Kippur, no longer will red strings turn white — there will be no more high priest or prophets.

“Ani hagever” teaches us it is up to us to achieve a deep inner connection and relationship with G-d — even without an overt, divine response.

But we want that divine intimacy back. That is why we cry on Tisha b’Av about. We miss your tangible divine presence, G-d!

What is your individual story, your “ani hagever,” so to speak, that can help shift, change or transform your life, your community’s, even the destiny of the Jewish people? Where can you be putting more love into your life, deeds, prayers, relationships — so as Rabbi Kuk teaches, building a world of baseless love?

Thank you Yael Zeigler for inspiring part of this column, after I attended a lecture of yours a number of years ago on chapter three of Lamentations.

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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