Devarim is the Parsha (Bible portion) associated with Tisha B’Av, the Jewish National Day of Mourning. On this Shabbos, we hear the famous Haftarah of Chazon, the Vision of Isaiah, always read immediately prior to Tisha B’av. And then on Monday night and Tuesday we will recall the destruction of our holy temple nearly 2000 years ago.
But why remember? The world cannot understand why we go on about the Holocaust and that was only 70 years ago! For over 19 centuries, we have been remembering and observing this event and it has become the saddest day in our calendar. Why? Why not let bygones be bygones? It’s history. What was was. Why keep revisiting old and painful visions?
They say that Napoleon was once passing through the Jewish ghetto in Paris and heard sounds of crying and wailing emanating from a synagogue. He stopped to ask what the lament was about. He was told that the Jews were remembering the destruction of their Temple. “When did it happen?” asked the Emperor. “Some 1700 years ago,” was the answer he received. Whereupon Napoleon stated with conviction that a people who never forgot its past would be destined to forever have a future.
Jews never had history. We have memory. History can become a book, a museum, and forgotten antiquities. Memory is alive, memories reverberate and memory guarantees our future.
Even amidst the ruins, we refused to forget. The first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. As they led the Jews into captivity, they sat down and wept. “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept remembering Zion.” What did they cry of? Their lost wealth, homes and businesses? No. They cried for Zion and Jerusalem. “If I forget thee ‘O Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its cunning. If I fail to elevate Jerusalem above my foremost joy, then let my tongue cleave to its palate.” They were not weeping for themselves or their lost liberties but for the heavenly city and the holy temple. Amidst the bondage, they aspired to rebuild, amidst the ruins they dreamt of returning.
And because we refused to forget Jerusalem, we did return. And because we refused to accept defeat or accept our exile as a historical fait acompli, we have rebuilt proud Jewish communities the world over, while our victors have been vanquished by time. Today there are no more Babylonians and the people who now live in Rome are not the Romans who destroyed the second temple. Those nations became history while we, inspired by memory, emerged revitalized and regenerated and forever it will be true that Am Yisrael Chai (the people of Israel live).
I remember hearing a story from the Holocaust of a Torah (Bible) scholar and his nephew. In the concentration camp, they studied the Talmud together. They were learning Gemorra (Talmud) Moed Katan, a part of the Talmud which, ironically, discusses the laws of mourning. And when the time came that the uncle saw himself staring death in the face, he said to his nephew, “Promise me that if you survive you will finish studying this book.” Amidst the misery, desolation and tragedy, what thought preoccupied his mind? That the Talmud should still be studied. This was his last wish on earth. Was it madness, or is it the very secret of our survival?
Only if we refuse to forget, only if we observe Tisha B’av can we hope to rebuild one day. Indeed, the Talmud assures us that “Whosoever mourns for Jerusalem, will merit to witness her rejoicing.” If we are to make our return to Zion successful and permanent, if our people are to harbour the hope of being restored and revived internationally, then we dare not forget. We need to observe our National Day of Mourning this Monday night and Tuesday. Forego the movies and the restaurants. Sit down on a low seat to mourn with your people; and perhaps even more importantly, to remember. And, please G-d, He will restore those glorious days and rebuild His own everlasting house. May it be speedily in our day.