8/13/05

Tisha B'av reflections
Non-rigorous, unfleshed-out: what I had to say this evening at my shul.

In the fifteen minutes I have allotted to me, I’m going to definitively answer some small, easy questions. For example: why are we here? What is life for? And why are we not having any lunch tomorrow?

The houses of Hillel and Shammai debated whether it would be better if the world had not been created. It was decided that it would have been better had the world not been created, but since it has been, we must examine our deeds.

This raises several questions. Would it be better for whom had the world not been created? If we are talking about God, then we have to understand what God takes to be “good.” But it might be, that given a particular definition of what God thinks is good, then a creation without our world might be better than a creation with it. What would it take for our existence to make the creation worse in God’s view?

Let’s put it another way. What would God’s criteria for good and better be, if our world did not exist? If none of us were here, would there be any morality left? If no one were around to behave rightly or wrongly, what would God care?

If the very existence of people, and, in more specific terms, the Jewish people, is enough to guarantee the Almighty the existence of a certain sort of moral calculus, then we’re already a step ahead – we can be confident, in a strange sort of way, that it’s better off that we are here. But only if our actions represent that sort of moral calculus. Perhaps that doesn’t mean that everything we do has to be right and proper, only that we have to be thinking about it. It means that whatever happens in a world inhabited by human beings is of moral import. Suffering is not just what God visits upon us, it is a phenomenon which must be understood and related to God’s blessings.

There’s another way of understanding “it would be better if the world not be created.” “Better” – as understood by people. How would this make any sense? But think of the imperfections of the world that people visit upon each other. One might think that our imperfections are so manifold, our death-dealing so innovative, that pain would be eliminated by getting rid of the source: people. We all know the midrashim in which God, or God’s angels, regrets having created people. People, on occasion, regret having been created, not because they get a raw deal from God, but because they give a raw deal to each other. Better far, perhaps, not to be around at all.

Why am I talking about the disappearance, or death, of all humanity, on the eve of a very specifically Jewish fast day? We are not enjoined to mourn the evil that human beings visit on each other; we are commanded to weep and sing dirges commemorating the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. We’re not mourning the famines in Africa, we’re not mourning the attacks in London. We are not even mourning the tragedies, the unnoticed deaths that happen every day to people we know and love and people we’ve never met. In a larger sense, true, every tragedy is relevant to our fast days, just as every joy is relevant to our holidays. Both these sorts of days are reflections of the joy and pain in God’s creation.

Only in a larger sense, though. In a smaller sense, Tisha B’av, which is really a small day, one small, not widely observed day in the Jewish calendar, represents one small corner of the dark world’s tragedy, perhaps an attempt by the Rabbis, or by God the Arranger of History, to make things manageable. It is an attempt to connect one part of our myth (that is, the way we understand our history) to another part.

This mythic connection goes something like this.

What do Jews do during their life in this world?
We build and create, imitating God.
We built a Temple, imitating the relationship of Jews to non-Jews and Israel to the rest of the world.
We collaborated with God on the Torah, a system of myth and law imitating the way in which God created the world.

What happened on Tisha B’av?
Our creation in imitation of God was destroyed.
Our Torah was burned.

What do we do on Tisha B’av now?
We cease from building and creating. We attempt to reproduce death as nearly as possible. It is a Shabbat from joy.

What is the traditional wish on Tisha B’av?
That we see the Temple rebuilt.
Which means: that we experience redemption.
Which further means: that we live in a world imitating God’s creation.
We experience death in order to transform life.

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