It’s Wednesday and I’m attending the funeral of my friend Jason’s father. It’s a bright clear sunny day at the Mount Sinai Memorial Park and Mortuary in the Hollywood Hills, typical for a July morning in Los Angeles. I didn’t know Arthur Rieger and I had no idea he had been battling cancer for the past year. This is either an indication that I’m not that close to Jason or that he likes to keep his struggles private. Looking to Jason now as he serenely comforts his mother, I’m inclined to think both may be true.
A trumpet sounds the iconic military funeral song, Taps to begin the flag ceremony. The central part being the deliberate folding of the American flag in a taught and perfect triangle, it is immediately presented to Jason’s mother. With its conclusion the coffin is lowered into the grave. As the mourners watch small drips are heard on the tent-like overhang. Murmurs start, “Is it raining?”
It most certainly was. First a drizzle. But by the time we began to shovel dirt onto the coffin (as is the Jewish custom) we’re in a full downpour. Then it starts to thunder.
A Time To Cry
Mourning is a bizarre thing if you think about it. Do the dead need us to mourn them? How much does one need to suffer before their life can go back to normal? There’s even an arguable perspective that should someone live to the ripe old age of say 90 or 100, should we cry? The person lived a full life, it’s clearly their time. And yet this view point does nothing to soothe the pain. So what is the purpose?
It’s an important question for anyone who has experienced loss. But now as we near the end of the 9 days and approach Tisha B’Av, it makes one wonder, why has our tradition mandated a time for national mourning? Is it just a space to refrain from enjoyment? Perhaps a good time to finish a book of Talmud so you can loophole out of the prohibition against meat with a celebratory siyum? Or do we have to do what it takes to connect with an historic structure that, for most of us, is nothing more than an abstract relic of a way of life that’s almost impossible to identify with? Are we really even capable of that anymore?
A Broken Nation from an RSVP
A story from the Gemara (Gitten 55B) is often told as the beginning of the destruction of Jerusalem. There was once a wealthy man who threw a party and invited all of his friends, one of which was named Kamtza. However, the messenger who went to deliver the invitation gave the invitation not to Kamtza, but to the host’s arch rival, Bar Kamtza.
While the party was in full swing, Bar Kamtza arrives looking to have a great time. After talking for a while and enjoying the food and drink, the host spots his rival and immediately stops the party demanding Bar Kamtza leave. Bar Kamtza, wanting to minimize the embarrassment pleads with the host to stay, offering to pay for everything he had eaten. The host refuses. So then Bar Kamtza sweetens the deal offering to pay for half the party. No dice. Finally, as a last act of desperation, Bar Kamtza offers to pay for the WHOLE party. The host cares not and proceeds to throw Bar Kamtza out.
Humiliated in front of his enemy, the town, and even the rabbis (who were at the party and said nothing) Bar Kamtza devises a plan to make the Romans believe the Jews are planning a rebellion. From that plan things escalate and it ends with the destruction of the Temple sending the Jews into exile, splintering the nation so profoundly we have yet to recover.
A House Standing Merely From Habit
When old homes fall into disrepair sometimes the atrophy is so bad that structurally, the only reason the house is standing is simply from habit. That’s the way the Neffesh Ha-Chayyim views the Roman’s ability to destroy the Beis HaMikdash (The Temple). Kabbalistically speaking, everything physical has a spiritual counterpart in the upper worlds. The book illuminates that by the time the Romans came to destroy the Temple, its spiritual entity in the heavens had already been decimated. How could such a thing have happened?
That’s the real lesson of the story of Bar Kamtza. If a room full of Jews (including rabbis) could stand idly by and watch someone so desperate to save face as they are torn down publicly, the unity of the Jewish people had already been eroded so completely. It’s from that social and moralistic climate that really destroyed the Beis HaMikdash above. Often this is described as sinas chinam or baseless hatred.
The Mourning After
To return to the sentiment above, when we are hit with tragedy we go through the stages of grief. But perhaps the most profound notion that one is confronted by when going through mourning is the realization that the way we look at life is an illusion. We may logically know that everyone we love will one day die, but there is a big part of us that refuses to acknowledge that reality. This is healthy as we could not function if the potential loss of a loved one was at the fore font of our minds. But when we are confronted with that reality through loss, it changes how we interact with the world and it is devastating.
But with the proper mourning, we hopefully gain intimacy and oneness with the ones who have come to support us in our darkest hour. It is a solemn but extraordinary unity.
The absence of the Beis HaMikdash should affect us on this deep level. Unfortunately, we have become accustomed to a world that seems to lack justice, truth, clear understandings of right and wrong, and a way to know we have atoned for our mistakes. The Beis HaMikdash represented all of these things.
We mourn on Tisha B’Av in an attempt to both become in touch with the important things we are missing right now and to attain the unity that the generations of the 2nd Temple lost. It is said that the Moshiach will be born on Tisha B’Av. I don’t personally believe that is a literal statement. Instead, I believe that when we properly grieve for the Beis HaMikdash, it will result in a unity that rebuilds its counterpart in the heavens above. It’s from there that we will usher in the new era of human history.
When You Know God is With You
With the coffin covered in dirt, we put down the shovels and Jason and his family recited Kaddish. From there, the rest of us lined up in two rows as the immediate family walked between us. The rabbi lead us in HaMakom, the Jewish prayer for comfort and with that the ceremony was over. Not a minute later the rain stopped.
It is rare in life that one can so clearly point to the hand of God in their life. As a scriptwriter, I know you can’t put something like that in a screenplay, it’s just too unbelievable. And though I don’t believe miracles alone should be the foundation of one’s belief system, it is a blessing to see them every once in a while. But when we go through the most difficult of suffering, it is a common reaction to ask, “why?” Unfortunately that “why” many times is not coming from a place of desire to understand, but from a place of protestation. How could a loving God inflict such pain? And though we may never know in this life the true answer for that, the revelation of a miracle lets us know the answer does exist and that there is a purpose.
May we all be blessed to have such clarity on this coming Tisha B’Av.
This post is dedicated to the memory of Avraham ben Moshe. May his neshama have an aliyah.
I like the way you bring up mourning of your friend’s father’s death with the mourning that should follow during Tisha B’Av after the destruction the second Temple. The story of Bar Kamtza provides a lesson in the way we should not humiliate another person even if they are our enemy.
Thanks for an insightful commentary.
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