Not since 4 August 70 CE have the Jewish people taken this kind of hit on communal Jewish worship. Yes we had the Inquisition, the pogroms, and, of course, the Holocaust. And yes, the Romans butchered our people like cattle. But like the Greeks during the story of Hanukkah, once our public prayers were silenced and the flames of our Menorah extinguished they seemed less threatened by our presence.
This is different. This is Covid-19. This virus hates you regardless of whom you hate. There are no alliances to be formed, no fifth column to develop, no collaborators. Covid is an independent operator. Covid doesn’t care who or what you believe in, who you voted for, or who you pray to. Covid will cancel you regardless of who you cancelled. Covid can’t be bought off.
However, as I started to say, the last time synagogue life took this type of hit was over 2000 years ago on Tisha B’Av. This year Tisha B’Av (the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, marking the destruction of both holy Temples in Jerusalem on this same date) occurred on July 28.
For me, it was my first real Tisha B’Av. For real. I finally get it. I get what it must have felt like to lose the entire environmental structure of Jewish identity.
The broader human sense of people feeling stripped down to the bare bones, to the core of who we are, when all the layers that coat us (work, society, religion etc…) are peeled away … forcing us to ask ourselves the question: Who are we when the music that accompanies the melody of our voice has been turned down? When the sound of our voice is no longer shaped by its harmony with surrounding voices? What happens if, after finally hearing our voice for real; alone, unvarnished … we don’t like it? Or even worse, what happens if as a result of this mandated solitude, we discover upon hearing our voice like that for the first time, that we don’t even recognize it? What if we discover that our voice was only a voice that sang to the music around it, as opposed to the music playing around our voice?
It’s like looking in the mirror for the first time and feeling disappointed … or thrilled?
We are caught in the desolation between two Tisha B’Avs – both of them holding up that mirror. Both asking the question of what we really look like when we are alone. Where do we find a rhythm that moves us, when the broader societal music that we have danced to stops playing?
It is a terrifying question. But it’s also a strangely exhilarating one as well. And it’s a real grown up question. A hybrid Tisha B’Av coronavirus question.
On an existential level, what happens when the altar of blame we often frequent is suddenly eliminated? What happens if our backs are against the wall for the first time in our lives and we are forced to finally look in the mirror and reflect?
This has been the case for all of us in one form or another during this tumultuous time, when the fingers that we point to, to account for our sorrow – or joy – can no longer be pointed. What do you see when the only thing gazing back at you is you?
I finally have a real emotional frame of reference for the questions they must have asked 2,000 years ago. Though we are now asking a new series of questions, they are rooted in a similar form of upheaval. Questions like who are we as Jews without attending a synagogue? (Imagine a Judaism without Hanukkah, Passover, Fiddler on the Roof and Barbra Streisand) Seriously though, where do we go from here?
What do you mourn for when the “replacement” for the loss of the Temple has been taken as well; when you can’t even really get inside the building that you go to, in order to commemorate loss?
Where and how do you pray for the loss of the holy Temples when your shul is closed too? What do you do when the structure you count on to be your rock, your Moses, your Rebbe, has been added to the present day Tisha B’Av victim list? How do we mourn when even mourning has been taken from us? How do we rebuild a Third Temple that hasn’t even been built yet?
Side note: The renaissance of Jewish life in the aftermath of its utter devastation is the only reason we are even here to ask the question of “where do we all go from here?” That should tell us something. Also, they did it without Zoom. Or cell phones. Without the very Facebook or Instagram that you might be on right now, reading this!
My hope is that this will end soon and we will go back to life as usual. The only question is will we have changed? Will we have grown in some fundamental way? Or will we have squandered the opportunity to like what we see when we look in the mirror when we once again lose that real mirror and go back to seeing whatever it is that society’s mirror shows us.
I don’t have all the answers or any for that matter. I am in the same boat as you. I’m also trying to make sense out of this.
Rabbi Yossi Lipsker leads Chabad of the North Shore.