Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Nahem: Should Our Prayers Match Reality?

Every year, as we finish Mincha of Tisha BeAv here in Alon Shevut, the same conversation takes place in various corners of the shul. The conversation is about the appropriate text of Nahem. This year, Rav Medan and Rav Yoel bin Nun were debating at the front, there were a few discussions off to the side.

What is the issues? (Hirhurim posted on this here and here.)

In short, the problem is that in today's reality, the prayer is untrue! It talks of Jerusalem as a city which is in a state of "mourning, destruction, disgrace, and desolation: mourning for the loss of her children; destroyed of its palaces; disgraced of its honour, and desolate with out inhabitants." ( I will not even enter into the end of the prayer that sides with Rashi that the future Temple will be built in fire whatever that means.)

Here two issues may be raised.
1. Jerusalem has more Jews today than ever before. This is simply a lie.
2. With our Zionist sensibilities, we do not feel that Jerusalem is in disgrace. How do we deal with this?

As regards (1.) Rav Lichtenstein related to this and said that he cannot lie in Tefilla. If I recall correctly, he simply omits the phrases מבלי בניה and מאין יושב and indeed this has been my adjustment ever since. This assumes that with the absence of Jewish Law and a God designated government, with Har Habayit still in foreign hands, and in that sense a total disgrace and lack of honour to God's name, the phrases of בזויה, שוממה, חרבה, אבלה can all relate to that, but as regards the return of Am Yisrael, that should be omitted from the prayer.

But as regards point (2.) I do not agree. I recall some years ago that I spent some time with a very impressive frum Israeli academic. He was (and is) for me a true model of Torah Umadda, a person of impeccable integrity, love of Am Yisrael, work-ethic, spirituality, humanity etc. He belonged to a group of people who, in the wake of the Six Day War, stopped fasting on 17 Tammuz. After all, 17 Tammuz commemorates the loss of the city. Now, we had the city in our hands. Of course, this group continued to observe the 9 days and Tisha BeAv as they relate to the loss of the Mikdash.

I was quite taken by the argument and began to become increasingly sensitive to the dissonance between our prayers and our current reality. sometimes the disparity is quite startling, and we daven as if we were still incarcerated in the doldrums of Christian Europe. At times our prayers seem simply a rejection of God's kindness , a failure to acknowledge the miracles (of ingathering, of Kibbutz Galuyot..restoration to our land, of Jewish safety and dignity, of Jewish governance) that God has performed in our own days. I couldn't take things as far as annulling a Taanit Tzibbur. But I decided to take matters into my own hands, and to "adjust" or omit certain phrases in the Monday and Thursday Tachanun. Phrases such as :
ישב נא אפך וחמתך מעירך ירושלים הר קדשך ... ירושלים וחרפה לכל סביבותנו
or how about this line?
פקח עיניך וראה שממותנו והעיר אשר נקרא שמך עליה
and I said to myself... Jerusalem has never seen such honour for the Jewish people! In 2000 years we haven't had the zechut to be here. Now God brings us back and we still recite these lines? And I put pencil lines around these phrases and stopped saying them.

And then, the Oslo accords began, and people began to discuss giving up on the Old City, and Har Habayit, and suddenly Jerusalem seemed far less secure. Incredibly, the Jerusalem which had seemed so rock steady appeared far more fragile and vulnerable. I decided that maybe I should have more modesty and that our tefillot should reflect the fact that we are existing somewhere on that line BETWEEN Galut and Geula, however, until that Geula arrives, it is an open game. (And maybe afterwards too. Who knows?)

And so, when I think of Jerusalem as a city in disgrace I do think about Har Habayit and the fact that we do not have a Mikdash, but I also think about the other ways in which Jerusalem falls short of our Religious standards, whether it is corruption and scandal, or the way in which foreign workers live in sub-standard conditions, or people who are not given their rights, or simply the embarrassment of the way our government works at times, or all different public demonstrations - from Left and Right - that seem to undermine the notion of what Jerusalem and Judaism stand for. And hovering over Jerusalem all the time is that it is ours, but it always feels like there is an axe in the air threatening to divide the city. sometimes, I feel like we are on borrowed time.

These , of course are my thoughts on 9 Av. The more optimistic and hopeful sentiments are reserved for Yom Yerushalayim and Yom Haatzmaut!

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