Make 2,000 years of mourning count: Use it to fight racism.
There is a story first documented at the end of the 1800s and almost certainly false: Napoleon was taking a walk in Paris one August evening when he heard a loud wailing from a nearby synagogue. His servants investigated and found people sitting on the ground, barefoot, weeping into prayer books. They informed Napoleon that the Jews were mourning the destruction of their Temple. Napoleon was shocked that he had not heard of such a dramatic event, but his servants clarified that the Temple had been destroyed more than 1500 years earlier. I’ve heard many versions of this story, but the parting words of wonder are always the same: “A nation that mourns for its Temple 1500 years after its destruction will one day get their Temple.”
I have come back to this Jewish capacity for resilient mourning as we approach another Tisha B’av, the annual Jewish fast day which mourns the destruction of the Temple. Over the millennia since the Temple was destroyed, the day has gathered many other tragedies into its fold, from the fall of the Bar Kokba revolt to the Expulsion from Spain. We mourn not just the loss of the building in Jerusalem but the loss of a single, unified way of worship and the loss of God’s direct presence on earth. The tragedy of the destruction of the Temple has been preserved not just in this annual fast day but in two more minor fast days throughout the year, in the breaking of the glass at every wedding and in leaving a small square unpainted in a Jewish home.
The compulsion to never forget the destruction of the Temple has been woven into nearly every moment of ritual Jewish life, from our daily prayers to our every holiday.
Nothing is untouched by this tragedy.
Three years ago, I was sitting in Yom Kippur services when we got to the Avodah, the detailed reading of how sacrifices would have gone down in the Temple. And I mean detailed: “And then the priest received the blood in a vessel and gave it to his attendant who would stir it constantly so it would not congeal before the time came to sprinkle it… and then he scooped the inner coals with a reddish-gold shovel, which was light and made of thin metal with a long handle…” It goes on for pages.
Suddenly, even though I had been saying these prayers annually since childhood, it seemed crazed. We lost our Temple over two thousand years ago. Two thousand years is such a mind-boggling amount of time to cling to a tragedy, to preserve a state of mourning. To still be sitting here, recounting in the most minute detail every aspect of what would have happened.
Shouldn’t we have gotten the message by now?
I thought of a toddler unable to forget his mother’s promise of ice cream, long after the car had pulled out from the beach and the promise was so clearly off the table. We seemed so stiff-necked, stuck in the past, unable to accept the changing times.
But the moment also filled me with incredulity, amazement, pride. The Jewish stubbornness, our curse in the Biblical deserts, had become a sustaining trait. Here we still are, refusing to be reconciled to the imperfect world, refusing to be distracted by time and comfort from the fact that our Temple was destroyed.
Two thousand years have passed, and we’re still mourning and demanding and hoping.
What folly. What bravery.
This year, we come to Tisha B’av amidst a pandemic and ongoing protests for Black Lives Matter and against police brutality, with escalating violence against protestors. The work that needs to be done, the obstacles to it being done, seem to stretch without limit.
For white American Jews, there has been a scramble in recent months to be reacquainted with the history of racism in this country, with the current manifestations of racism in everyday life, in law enforcement, and in our own communities. There has been mourning and demanding and hoping.
But now that the organizations have run their sensitivity trainings and the coverage of the protests, still ongoing, has thinned, the push to stay angry and refuse to be reconciled to an imperfect world feels slackened.
Without comparing the tragedies, in these three weeks of mourning leading up to Tisha B’av, I have found myself trying to draw on the Jewish capacity to stay heartbroken about our Temple as a way to remember that we both need, but cannot rely solely on, emotion to fuel an ongoing connection to a demand for change. We need ritual, everyday reminders, the near constant symbols that mark that something about the world is not right.
God promised us that the Temple will one day be restored, but we do not sit back and let the universe lead the way. We still mourn its destruction, we still recount every detail of how the sacrificial services went down on Yom Kippur, the amount of stirred blood needed to bring atonement. And unless we bring this same passion, focus, and stubbornness and resilience to the fight against racism, we cannot succeed.
I don’t know if the Jews will one day get their Temple. I’m supposed to believe it, and I feel inadequate to doubt two thousand years of faith.
I also don’t know if America can change for the better, for everyone who lives here. But I know I don’t want it to be a fight of two thousand years.
And I know that neither will come to pass if we don’t take active steps, every day, to mourn what has been lost and to fight for a better future.
Jews are stubborn; we’ll need every ounce of it.
Shira Telushkin lives in Brooklyn, where she writes on religion, fashion, and culture for a variety of publications. She is currently finishing a book on monastic intrigue in modern America.