The great miracle of Jewish survival is not that we survived great tragedies. It is that we survived as a community ever faithful to its vision of a better world for us and for all people and not as an angry and embittered tribe.
When we look at Jewish responses to the tragedies of our past, what emerges is that despite the great disasters, the unbelievable suffering, the unbearable pain, and the overwhelming sense of loss, we never believed that our God abandoned us. We never gave up hope.
When we asked where our God was, our response was that God is with us in our suffering. We did not feel alone but sensed that even after the fall of Jerusalem and through all the centuries of wandering, the Holy One went into exile with us to comfort us, inspire us, and give us hope.
The foundations for this remarkable reaction to suffering appear in the biblical responses to the first great tragedy our people experienced, the Babylonian capture of Jerusalem, the destruction of our Temple and the exile of our people more than twenty-five centuries ago. In the writings of our prophets, particularly Isaiah of the Exile, we see visions of hope rising out of the ashes of destruction.
Of course we grieved our losses and we still remember that grief. Even today, on the fast day of Tisha B’Av, the Ninth Day of the Month of Av, the anniversary of that tragedy and of so many others, we sit as mourners on stools in a darkened room, and recite the five psalms that make up the biblical Book of Lamentations. We do not pretend that tragedy has not touched our lives, but Tisha B’Av, which marks the end of a period of sadness reliving the events leading up to the fall of Jerusalem, also marks the end of our period of grief. Our Jewish liturgy and calendar do not let us remain in mourning.
We call the Shabbat immediately after Tisha B’Av, Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Comfort. This name comes from the opening words of the Haftara for that Shabbat which was written by the Prophet Isaiah of the Exile to our exiled ancestors. Isaiah challenged our ancestors to be comforted and consoled and to maintain hope despite their loss. Evoking the Exodus from Egypt, the prophet describes the return of our people from exile to the Holy Land and the Holy City.
We were angry at what had happened to us and, in dark moments, dreamed of revenge. Psalm 137, the lament of the exiles in Babylon, looks forward to the violent overthrow of Babylon, the proud capital of our oppressors. But our prophets helped our people look beyond our anger and desire for revenge. They accepted a mission for themselves to be a light to the nations (Isaiah 49:8) to draw people from idolatry to the worship of God. They envisioned their rebuilt Temple as a place of worship not only for Jews but for all people who turn to God (Isaiah 56:7). They pictured their city of Jerusalem as a city cared for by all nations (Isaiah 60:16) as the spiritual center of God’s dominion.
We are now living in a time of miracles. After centuries of wandering our people have returned to our ancient land and have built a strong and prosperous State of Israel. The prophets’ vision of our people restored in our own land is no longer just a dream. Yet their beautiful vision of our world at peace still seems impossibly distant. Jerusalem itself, though rebuilt by our people’s efforts and cherished by believers of three great faiths, is not yet a city of peace.
We do not have the insight to foresee the final resolution of the many complicated issues that confound the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians. We can, however, pray with the words of the Psalmist that our prophet’s vision of a Jerusalem prosperous, secure and at peace, will someday be realized.
“Pray for the well-being of Jerusalem
May those who love you be at peace.
May there be well-being within your ramparts, peace in your palaces.
For the sake of my kin and friends,
I pray for your well-being;
for the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I seek your good.