Mourning Diary

Relief of Mourning Women, Egyptian, 381–343 BC

There are questions concerning the meaning of the opening of Psalm 126, particularly pertaining to its tense. The verse reads בשוב יהוה את־שיבת ציון היינו כחלמים, which we can render either as “when the Lord restores the fortunes of Zion, we see it as in a dream” (liberally, from JPS), or “…we shall be like dreamers” (Judaica Press) or, as it was taught to me by R. Yonatan Cohen, “…it will be like you were dreamers.” Thus the question: will redemption itself be like a dream, or in the time of redemption will our exile in retrospect seem to us like a dream we’ve awoken from?

A story is relayed in the Yerushalmi (Ta’anit 16b) that cites this verse, of which I’ll offer a paraphrase: a man sleeps for seventy years, dreaming his way through the destruction of the first temple and the building of the second. Upon waking, he notices that the world around him has changed—though not in any way he can exactly place. He wanders into the rebuilt temple, finding his way to its innermost sanctuary, which becomes illuminated upon his entry. The contemporaries of his grandchildren milling around the temple gaze at him in awe, and he reminds them:

In the time of redemption it will be like we were dreamers.

According to this translation, which I’m happy to admit is something of a mistranslation, the fact of exile itself is read as a dream from which we awake. Exile, and all of the rites and practices we’ve adopted in its wake, is understood to be a kind of psuedo-life, a psychic distraction from the true Jewish reality of temple worship. I prefer this, obviously, to the notion of redemption itself as a kind of dream that we will slip into in the messianic generation. Better: redemption will resemble a return to consciousness, a shaking off of the illusions of our exilic dream. We will remember who we are, and to Whom we are obligated. The 9th of the month Av—today, the day we mourn the destruction of both temples and our fall into exile—should thus be understood as a moment of continued dreaming, but now lucid dreaming. In every other moment we are asleep to our own sleeping; today, we arouse ourselves to the unreality of our situation, to the fact of our dream-life. Blessed are those who are aware of Your absence.

I’m good at mourning. I sit on the synagogue floor like Job sat in ashes. I lament, I elegize, I abstain. I’m able, in fasting, to learn Torah somatically, at the site of my own body. This is a kind of reverse incarnation: through depriving myself (of food, of water) I learn firsthand about Your absence. It’s no coincidence that it was on this day that you departed from the world. A radical claim? The voice of an old teacher rings in my head—He’s really, really not here. You are here, of course. But on this day we’re blind to everything but Your distance. I wait; I lack, but I want for nothing. I’m as static as an angel. The rabbi tells us that prayer is useless. The gates are closed. For now even to hope for Your return is inappropriate.

In fasting, I am in love. To be in love is to be in a peculiar relationship with time. “Lovers are always waiting. They hate to wait; they love to wait.” My hunger forces me to check the clock, to count the hours. I pray, and I wait.

Somewhere in a Hasidic parable there’s an analogy made between the feeling of being in exile and the feeling of waiting impatiently for your beloved to arrive for a rendezvous: I’ve cleaned the place and arranged everything perfectly, I’ve dressed myself and checked my appearance in the mirror, I’ve perfumed myself—only where are you? I grow restless, I pace around my room. I think I hear your footsteps, but when I check the door no one’s there.

Every Tisha B’av is an exercise in waiting. We’re here, we’re ready, we’re hungry—have You forgotten us? For millennia we’ve waited. Like a starving bride waiting in her bedroom. We look for meaning in your absence, we invent new ways to interpret your silence. We pray and there’s no answer. Have You missed our appointment? Will you hurry, son of David?

This is the story: once, we were married. The vow was broken (idolatry is a synonym for infidelity) and you abandoned us. Yet we remain bound and beholden to you; we are enamored, and we have proof that you loved us too. We have legal testimony, indeed, that You chose us to be Your bride. Torah represents our marriage contract. “Had it not been for Your Torah,” we cry out in Eichah Rabbah, the midrashic companion to Lamentations, “the heathen people would long ago have caused us to perish” (3:7)—had the bride not had her marriage contract, that is, in the absence of her husband she would have given in to the ridicule of her neighbors.

There’s something devastating about God’s incredulity in this midrash. In the time of redemption He will return to us and say: “I can’t believe you waited.”

Leaving the afternoon services I walk uptown, past my mother’s apartment, to Zabar’s on 80th street. I buy materials for the break-fast (bagels and hot smoked salmon) and then, on a whim, stop into the crowded bookstore narrowly wedged into a stall across the street. As if to say: this is what a hungry person can do, or as if to wonder: can my hunger be detected. After a recent breakup I remember being vaguely confused not to find my ex’s name trending on Twitter, as if my personal subjective pain was so significant as to justify it as a universal news item. The boundary between internal and external realities had blurred, leaving me to wonder (with no shred of irony)—why aren’t people talking about this? I move around the bookstore trying to discover hints of my own hunger in the eyes of people squeezing themselves against the shelves to politely let me pass. I look for traces of it in the books as I trace their titles with my finger: a poet who understood hunger, or, better, who understood the ruined temple.

This is a kind of narcissism, obviously. I leave the store and find that it’s raining lightly, and I wonder what it is to live in a world oblivious to the heartbreak of my ancient nation. We repeat Your name quietly, we remember You quietly.

Much of Eichah Rabbah is concerned with the particularly tragic logic of a bride whose husband has left her to go on a voyage to the medinat-yam, the sea country. Maritime travel has always been considered treacherous, and especially so in the rabbinic imagination. The implication of such a voyage is that the wife will be left with no recourse to communicate with her husband and no guarantee of his safety. Radio silence gives life to rumors. Those around the bride will insist her husband has died or abandoned her, and she will have no information to suggest otherwise. She will be left in this precarious and desperate state until his return, if he ever does return.

The midrash invites us to imagine ourselves in exile as such a bride. What does it mean, we ask today, to be in relationship with one who is absent and absolutely silent? What does it mean to remain betrothed under such conditions? He’s really, really not here—and yet we speak to Him, we pray, like sending a message in a bottle. This is what it is to fast. Hungry bride, abandoned bride. This is what it is to remain beholden to You, to remain in love. We count the hours.

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J. N.

J. N.

Theology, Hermeneutics, Jewish Mysticism | Oberlin 2022