Saturday, October 17, 2009

Mourning for Jerusalem

The UNHRC decision yesterday took the deeply flawed Goldstone Report, pared off the few sections that were critical of Hamas, and added condemnation to Israel for trying to keep the peace in Jerusalem, an issue which has nothing to do with anything - or perhaps, has everything to do with it.

In a few days the Daf Yomi brigade will reach this story (I'm still a few pages ahead):

After the destruction of the Second Temple many of the Pharisees decided never again to eat meat or drink wine, as a statement of their grief. Rabbi Yehoshua engaged their leaders in conversation, and asked why?
- Because with the destruction of the Temple we can no longer bring sacrifices, nor pour wine on the altar.
- Well, then why eat bread? Bread was part of the ritual, too?
- You're right. We won't eat bread, either, only fruit.
- But fruit [in the broader meaning of agricultural produce] shouldn't be consumed either. After all, we used to bring our tithes to the Temple, and we can't do that anymore?
- You're right. We'll only eat agricultural produce of the sort that wasn't brought to the Temple.
- But water? We can't drink water anymore, either, can we? Water used to be poured on the altar?

To this they had no answer, and Rabbi Yehoshua continued:
My children, come and I'll try to resolve this for you. We can't not mourn. Yet we can't mourn too much, for if we do there will be no life. So we must mourn as part of life, thus: When a man paints his home he should leave a small section unpainted. When preparing a feast, he should leave a small part unprepared. When a woman puts on her jewelry, she should put on a bit less. As it is written, "If I forget thee Jerusalem, let my right hand wither". [This was written after the destruction of the First Temple, so Rabbi Yehoshua was referring to a cultural tool which had already proved itself]. And whoever mourns Jerusalem will yet see her in her celebration.

Bava Batra, 60b

Did Rabbi Yehoshua know that he was fine-tuning the culture of mourning to a level - not too harsh, but not too easy, either - that would be sustainable for almost 2,000 years? I doubt it. Yet the impulse was clearly there. Mourning must fit into life.

The significance of the story isn't the ancient legend, but the fact that ever since it has been possible to see Jewish homes with a patch of unpainted wall, zecher lachurban, a memory of the destruction. Because the balance Rabbi Yehoshua sought was correct, we have indeed, after a very long time, seen Jerusalem rebuilt as the capital of the Jews.

In Yemin Moshe, a neighborhood across from the wall of the Old City, there is a wealthy man who recently refurbished his home. Instead of leaving an unpainted patch, he had an artisan use a new-fangled technology to etch page 60b into a block of Jerusalem limestone, and mount it in his living room wall.

Is this a sign of mourning, or of celebration?

1 comment:

DM said...

Altar, not alter.