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April 20, 2014 | 20th Nisan 5774

Though He Tarry...

July 29, 2001
Marc Rosenstein



For a long time I have had ambivalent feelings about the Ninth of Av. Living in a free and independent state of Israel, whose sovereignty includes Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, it feels odd to be enacting a ritual of mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem and the loss of sovereignty in Israel. There seems to be a dissonance between the reality and the feeling
that the ritual is supposed to express.

However, as I think about it more, I have come to realize that the implications of dropping the fast of the Ninth of Av are significant and dangerous:

Ever since the fall of Jerusalem, we have lived with an often excruciating tension between wanting to know just where we stand in the process of redemption and the knowledge that that is the one thing we cannot know. Jewish (and Christian and Moslem) history is littered with would-be messiahs and the damage they caused, both spiritual and material. Time and again we rejected the wisdom of our teachers and leaders and insisted on knowing the
unknowable, swept away by those whose calculations offered us hope and by those whose charisma inspired our faith. And time and again the calculations were in error, the charisma a cover for charlatans or fools.

Bar Kochba, Jesus of Nazareth, and Shabbetai Zvi were only the most famous of dozens of others, in every century and in every corner of the Jewish world. The rabbis of the Talmud made the establishment position clear: "three things come unexpectedly: a scorpion, a found item, and the messiah;" implying that if we expect them, they will not come.

But what to do, it's hard to resist. It is hard to live through the horrors of exile when you think maybe you've seen signs that the end is in sight. After all, we believe with perfect faith that there will be an end; who is to say it can't be in our lifetime?

And modernity has not damped this fire. The Enlightenment and the Reform movement that grew out of it were certainly messianic movements, based on a belief that we were entering a new era, a new phase of history when universal human values would govern the affairs of humankind. Then socialism proclaimed a turning point, the end of history as we knew it and
the dawning of a new world of equality and peace. Now Zionism comes with the same message: a new phase in Jewish history, the one promised by the prophets, of ingathering, of sovereignty, of universal justice. And most of the Jewish world, implicitly or explicitly, has accepted this interpretation: the standard version of the grace after meals, Birkat
HaMazon
, now includes the blessing over the state of Israel, "first flowering of our redemption."

From this belief that we are able to catch a glimpse of the design of history, that we can know that we are living in messianic times, arise such phenomena as the Jewish underground of the 80s, with their plans to dynamite the mosques on the Temple Mount to prepare for the rebuilding of the Temple, as well as other less extreme manifestations of messianic fervor.

And so, as disappointing as it is to admit it, perhaps we need to view our current enthusiasms through the lens of history, and tone down our expectations. Hard as it may be to accept it, just as it was hard for our forbearers, maybe we are not living in messianic times, in which case the state of Israel, while romantic and exciting and wonderful and maybe even miraculous, is still just another episode in our history. So we may be able to add Independence Day to our sacred calendar, as we did Hanukah and Purim, but alas, the time has not yet come to remove the Ninth of Av.

 

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