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Amidst the Ruins

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Yesterday the city fell. The siege had been going on for months. Three weeks ago the enemy breached the walls. A lone voice here and there, an occasional street preacher, tried to warn the people, but to no avail. Prophets may be honored but not in their own country. Life in the teeming city continued as always. People ate and slept, bought and sold, and quarreled as usual, blaming each other as the enemy's grip tightened.

But defeat, destruction, captivity, exile? It couldn't happen here. Yesterday it did. Before the sunset, the city was a ruin, the Temple aflame.

It happened on the ninth of Av, Tisha b'Av according to the Jewish calendar. This year the fast day fell on the Sabbath, but mourning is not permitted to darken the weekly reign of the Sabbath queen, the brightest day of the week. The rituals of Tisha b'Av had to give way till night fell. Only then might the lamentations begin.

So after sundown a handful of us gathered at the small synagogue to sit on the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings -- and remember that within the hollow crown that rounds mortal temples keeps Death his court. Again the ancient words were recited: How doth the city sit solitary, she that was full of people! How is she become as a widow! She weepeth sore in the night. . . .

There were not many of us here, just some of the regulars, joined by an irregular or two like me, and maybe a few Jews who happened to be passing through Little Rock, Ark., this distant corner of the Exile, and remembered what day, or rather night, this was.

It was on such a night in 1913 that a young German graduate student in Berlin named Franz Rosenzweig, already the hope and pride of his mentors, with a promising academic career awaiting him, decided to observe the Jewish day of atonement for the last time. He had determined to complete his assimilation into the dominant, enlightened culture of his day by giving up the ancient faith into which he had been born. But he would say a proper goodbye. So he found an obscure little synagogue that night on a side street of the great city, and then . . . something happened.

He never said just what it was, but by the end of the service, he could not leave the faith. Or his people. Or . . . Something.

Whatever it was, it held him. As he would later write a friend, "I must tell you something that will grieve you, and may at first seem incomprehensible to you. I have reversed my decision. It no longer seems necessary to me, and therefore, being what I am, no longer possible. I will remain a Jew."

He never did go on to become a renowned member of the history faculty, despite the urging of his eminent professor. Instead, he would become the foremost Jewish theologian, or maybe anti-theologian, of his between-the-wars time. For he eschewed elaborate theories about religion and despised theatrical sermons. Instead, he embraced simplicity, shunning preachments and preferring practice.

Practice may not make perfection, but it does make faith habit, and habit somehow becomes belief. Till it becomes not possible to abandon it.

I thought I spotted Herr Rosenzweig at our service, hovering in a rear pew, still just listening, not speaking, sharing our grief, comforting the mourners by his silent presence. The thought occurred that he would not have stuck with us if on that fall night in 1913 he had chosen to attend some sleek, anonymous modern temple, outfitted with blank windows and the latest, most fashionable thoughts. Instead, something had brought him to that small synagogue, just as something had brought this remnant together tonight.

The laments overflowed the little sanctuary. We wept, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. . . .

Yet there was comfort in the old words, solace somehow in the full recognition of our utter desolation. Next week we will read Isaiah's words in the midst of calamity: Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people.

Comfort? What possible comfort could there be, entering captivity, enslaved by our new masters, strangers in a strange land, effaced from history? This was the end. Jerusalem had fallen. Only ruins were left.

But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.

What? Shall these dry bones live again? Absurd.

We mourned as the light flickered and night deepened. Heal us, O Lord, we prayed, and we will be healed. Renew us, and we will be renewed.

And we were.

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