Monday, July 15, 2013

Tisha b'Av


8 Av 5773
July 15th, 2013

Everyone knows George Santayana’s most famous line, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I suppose that, in an attempt not to repeat the past, I’ve been religiously miserable for the last 9 days.

Tonight starts Tisha b’Av - the Ninth of the Hebrew month of Av. It commemorates the destruction of two Temples in Jerusalem, along with a slew of other Jewish tragedies. It is the saddest day of the Jewish year.

The observances of the day are stark: no eating, no showering, no sex, no music or enjoyment, no fancy clothes; in the evening and the morning, people sit on the floor rather than use the comfort of a chair. Eicha (Lament - a book of the bible memorializing the invasion of Israel and the destruction of the first Temple) is read.

Tisha b’Av builds up: the three weeks before the memorial begin the mourning. By nine days ahead of time, there’s no meat eating or wine drinking, no laundry, no live music, no swimming. It’s intense.

I could rhapsodize about how spiritually invigorating it is to abstain from all these practices, but I won’t - that would trivialize what Tisha b’Av is. The truth is, these nine days are hot, miserable, and unpleasant. I will be glad when they are over.

It is the way of spiritual discourse these days to portray religious observance as a kind of boot camp for the soul - that one passes through [insert observance here]’s strictures and requirements and comes out Army strong. Often, this description has the virtue of actually being true, as opposed to just rhetorically convenient.

But that is not the case with Tisha b’Av. The only point is to feel bad, and, by feeling bad, to gain the maturity that comes with memory.

Unlike other Jewish observances (Yom Kippur, for example), Tisha b’Av does not aim to make me a better person. I am not spiritually improved by the fast. Mourning is not redemptive.

Rather we mourn simply because these tragedies, full of suffering beyond comprehension or description (yet somehow not execution) happened, and they could happen again. It would have been better for the Jewish people and the world had we not been slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands and millions. There is no advantage to such suffering. But they did happen. So we remember.

Some argue that Tisha b’Av is wallowing, and that one should gather ye rosebuds and so forth. And I have to admit, the impulse to live in the moment and discard the overwhelming past is very seductive. But that is not who we are. It is not a virtue to pretend innocence once it has been lost, nor for the traumatized to deny trauma. If Tisha b’Av is anything, it is honest; memory is for the mature.

It would have been far better that Tisha b'Av never had happened. But because it has, our obligation is to remember so that it does not and cannot happen again. We cannot pretend to a rosier history.

What Santayana really wrote was this:

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

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