It was the saddest day of the year. I sat on the cold, hard floor with hundreds of fellow Jews, hungry, thirsty and unshaven. Together we mourned the destruction of Jerusalem, studying Lamentations, the haunting words of Jeremiah the Prophet. For six straight hours we drowned ourselves in the Kinnot, poetic testimonies of those who witnessed the decimation of Jewish communities throughout the ages. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the Chemelnitzki massacres, the Pogroms, the Holocaust; they all stem from one calamity, the downfall of Jerusalem.
Just one week later, I stood with Mitch and Sue under the Chuppa. It was the happiest day of their lives, and I was helping them join together in marriage. He placed the ring on her finger, we read the Ketuba, and with joyous gratitude, friends and family members recited the seven blessings.
As the ceremony came to a close, the happiness was palpable and everybody was prepared to celebrate. But the excitement was momentarily and instantaneously shattered, as Mitch smashed his foot down and crushed the glass that had been lying there. The pile of shards and splinters that remained reminded us that no celebration is whole, no joy is complete as long as Jerusalem remains in a state of ruin.
Jerusalem, at the pinnacle of her glory, was the center of wisdom and Divine service. People from all over the world flocked to the Temple for the ultimate spiritual and intellectual experience. It was uplifting to hear the songs of the Levites, awe-inspiring to see the dignified stature of the Kohanim (Priests), and enlightening to sit in the gallery as the scholarly and creative educators of the Sanhedrin convened. A sense of unity prevailed among those lucky enough to make the pilgrimage and spend three times a year basking in God’s presence. “If I forget thee O Jerusalem” cried King David. We are charged to keep Jerusalem at the forefront of our memory at our saddest and happiest moments.
Zachor, remembrance, is a powerful word to the Jews. Our holidays are celebrated to remember events that happened thousands of years ago. In the Jewish tradition, a yahrzeit, the anniversary of a death, has a special significance. It is an opportunity to remember someone who made an irreplaceable difference in our lives. How many Jews are there who do not attend prayer services regularly, but will not miss the four times a year that Yizkor, the memorial prayer, is re-cited? Zachor is the word that characterizes any commemoration of the most recent and devastating tragedy, the Holocaust. Remembering is crucial to the psyche of the Jewish people, but only because Judaism defines memory in a distinct and unique way.
The Rav – Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik zt”l, a legal and philosophical giant of our generation – explains that the Jewish definition of memory is more than the mechanical reproduction of images and events that took place sometime in the past and have since been washed away in the tide of time. Remembrance is the resilience that enables us to preserve the experiences of history, be they joyous or tragic, so that they do not become a distant, clouded or meaningless memory. By keeping these experiences fresh and alive in our collective awareness, we can connect with and be influenced by people who lived and events that occurred tens, hundreds or thousands of years ago.
The experiences of our ancestors have remained with each successive generation, continually shaping our identity as a people. When we “remember” something from our past, we actually relive and re-experience it, for it affects us as acutely as it affected the generation that actually lived through these destiny-charged events.
When we remember Jerusalem, we remember her in this fashion. Breaking a glass at a wedding is not merely a symbolic or commemorative act. It is an act that expresses the pain of a broken and incomplete people, a pain that haunts us even today and obstructs our ability to fully rejoice. We do not just tell stories about Jerusalem each year on Tisha B’Av, we sit shiva, because the destruction of Jerusalem and the loss of its impact upon the world is as devastating to our generation as it was to those who were doomed to live through it.
Many people will attempt to revise history. They will say that the Holocaust never happened, or that the Temple never stood on that contested mountain in Jerusalem. Time and again, so-called scholars will try to convince us that the most significant events of our past are nothing but legends, uprooted from historical reality. But we know better. We refuse to let our past fade into oblivion, into some story that can be dismissed or rewritten.
The memories that we have collectively kept alive generation after generation have sustained us as a people, and have guaranteed that the turbulent journey of Jewish history has an ultimate and glorious destination. Remembering does not only preserve the past, it is a surety for the future. As Napoleon once said after passing by a synagogue on Tisha B’Av and watching in amazement as the Jews tearfully mourned Jerusalem: “I vow that this people is destined for a successful future in its own land, for where can we find a single other People which kept alive similar mourning and hope for thousands of years?”
Steven Weil is rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills, California. This article first appeared on http://www.olam.org.