History on the Heart

How we came to meet is a long story, and of no particular import here. But a guest in my office several years ago was a young non-Jewish musician, the lead member of what he called a “neo-punk” band.

As he left, he gave me a gift, his group’s most recent CD. Although my musical tastes run in other directions, I was touched by the gesture and thanked him. Then, realizing that he would probably want a report that I had given his work a listen, I told him that I would be unable to do so for a number of days, since it was in the middle of the “Three Weeks” – the time between the fasts of Shiva Asar B’Tammuz (the seventeenth day of the Jewish month Tammuz) and Tisha B’Av (the ninth day of the month Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar) – when observant Jews refrain from certain joyous pursuits and do not listen to music. I explained that the period commemorates the destruction of the two central Jewish Temples in Jerusalem, the first one more than two millennia ago, as well as a number of subsequent Jewish historical tragedies.

He seemed puzzled by the fact that events so distant in time could be so pressing in the present as to evoke fasting or refraining from music. “That’s just too funny,” was his response. I think he meant that he found the notion mystifying.

As well it might be to someone from my guest’s background. It is a singularly Jewish trait to be so attuned to history.

Even Jews who are not religiously observant have history on the heart. That is why Jews love to seek out their roots, why they inquire about those of other Jews they meet, why there are Jewish genealogical societies, history lectures, Holocaust museums and commemorations. And Jews who embrace their religious heritage more fully are even more exquisitely sensitive to the past, not only the recent but the long ago.

This Tisha B’Av, like on every one, observant Jews fasted and wept over the tolls taken by the travails of the Jewish past. They sat low like mourners for much of the day, and read about the destruction of the Temples, reciting poetic dirges for hours about those Jewish catastrophes and others (including the previous century’s; there may be concern about the lessening attendance at Holocaust commemorations, but as long as there is Tisha B’Av there will be Jewish memory). Many of us this year bemoaned, too, the tarnished image of observant Jews these days, the result of recent headlines. It seemed almost appropriate to include newspapers among the dirges recited on the day.

The fact, though, that most of the mourned events took place hundreds, even thousands, of years ago did not, and does not, make them less relevant. For only our own determined actions and devotion to G-d and to others can merit the end of Jewish travail. Only then can the mourning stop. And so Tisha B’Av remains the saddest day.

Jewish history-headedness yields not only memory, but fear as well – and the contemporary world scene does not reassure. One sees nations that are lethal mixtures of advanced weaponry and retarded reason, cauldrons of contentiousness heavily spiced with violence, cruelty and, of course, passionate hatred of Jews.

Weapons of mass destruction are well on the way to being produced in Iran, where a presidential deputy was recently forced to resign his position because he dared express something other than utter hatred for Israeli Jews. And while Pakistan, whose nuclear capability is well established, may be something of an ally today, it is crawling with Islamic extremists (not a rare breed anywhere these days).

In 2002, Leon Wieseltier famously entitled a piece he wrote for The New Republic “Hitler is Dead.” In it he decried the “mythifying habit” of perceiving Jew-hatred over history as a cohesive evil, scoffed at those who perceive the possibility of a future “Second Holocaust,” and proposed that Jews come to recognize that our world, even with all its bluster and anger and anti-Semitism, is truly different from the one that existed before the Second World War.

His essay was characteristically brilliant and lyrical. But it was also as wrong as any collection of words has ever managed to be. Hitler may be history (in the colloquially flippant use of the word) but his proud progeny, unfortunately, are alive and well. The Nazi-inspired imagery common in Arab newspapers and scrawled on European grave-markers are not without meaning. The building of gas chambers may not be underway, but the aiming of missiles assuredly is. And while it may be heartening to imagine best-case scenarios, history-honed hearts can easily imagine other possibilities.

And yet, the Three Weeks are pointedly followed by the “Seven of Consolation,” when the synagogue readings from the Prophets consist of Divine reassurances that, although we have suffered grievously and often, suffering need not be our future; things can be better. The comfort, though, derives not from any Wieseltierian refusal to countenance the truth about Jew-hatred throughout history or the possibility that what was could ever again be. It comes, rather, from being reminded of Who is in charge, Who alone can protect whomever He chooses, whoever merits His protection.

And with that hope the sensitive Jew takes heart, and sets himself to the quiet work of being better.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America This essay was adapted from an earlier version published in 2004.]

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3 Responses

  1. Neil Harris says:

    Great essay.
    “Many of us this year bemoaned, too, the tarnished image of observant Jews these days, the result of recent headlines. It seemed almost appropriate to include newspapers among the dirges recited on the day.”

    I think you hit the nail on the head.

  2. Adam says:

    nice article. But … how was the CD?!

  3. CJ Srullowitz says:

    While there very well may be extraordinarily high levels of anti-Semitism throughout the globe, and while an argument can be made that this very well ought to frighten us, the fact remains that Jews today live, lulei demistafina, in a world far different than the one our great-grandparents lived in.

    Fully eighty percent of Jews live in Israel and the United States, where they are not–nor need to seriously worry about becoming–victims of government-sponsored persecution. This is also mostly true for another roughly ten percent who live in Canada, France and England.

    No one will argue that we–each of us individually and collectively as a nation–are in God’s hands, every second of every day. Nor will anyone argue that a nuclear Iran is something to take lighlty. However, our station in the world today is a far cry from the insecurity that Jews felt in the not-too-distant past.

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