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Jewish World Review
August 4, 2004
/17 Menachem-Av, 5764
History on the heart
By Rabbi Avi Shafran
The neo-punker who learned the secret of Jewish survival
How we came to meet is a long story, and of no particular import here. But a recent guest in my office was a young non-Jewish musician, the lead member of a "neo-punk" band.
As he left, he gave me a gift, his group's most recent CD. Although my musical tastes run in somewhat 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 smack 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) when observant Jews refrain from certain joyous pursuits, and when there is a custom to not listen to music. I explained that the period commemorates the destruction of the central Jewish temple in Jerusalem, the first time 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, which I understood to mean he found the notion mystifying.
As well it might be. For it seems 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, and why they inquire about those of other Jews they meet; why there are Jewish genealogical societies and history lectures, why Holocaust museums and commemorations abound. 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 is being written shortly after Tisha B'Av, the fast that ends the "Three Weeks" and the saddest day on the Jewish religious calendar.
This Tisha B'Av, like 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 memory).
The fact that most of the 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 morality, cauldrons of contentiousness putridly spiced with violence, cruelty and, of course, passionate hatred of Jews.
Whether or not weapons of mass destruction are ever found in Iraq, there appears to be not a sliver of doubt that they are well on the way to being produced in Iran. And while Pakistan, whose nuclear capability is well established, may be our ally today, its leader lives a precarious life, one whose end is coveted by Islamic extremists (hardly a rare breed on the subcontinent, or in much of the rest of Asia or the Middle East).
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 essentially different from the one that existed before the Second World War.
His essay was characteristically brilliant, charming and lyrical. But it was also as wrong as any collection of words could possibly 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 printed in Arab papers and scrawled on European grave-markers are not without meaning. The building of gas chambers may not be underway, but the aiming of missiles most certainly is. And while it may be heartening to imagine best-case scenarios, history-honed hearts all too 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 G-d's 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 vexing truth about Jew-hatred over history, or the possibility that what was could ever be again. It comes, rather, from being reminded of Who is in charge, Who alone can protect whomever He chooses.
And with that hope the sensitive Jew takes heart, and sets himself to the quiet work of being better.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.
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