We are all orphans, diaspora jackals, seeking consolation

Vaetchanan

Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11

Isaiah 40:1-26

“I lift my eyes yonder to the mountains, from where will my consolation come?” In these times of darkness, where consolation feels so far out of reach, I find myself searching the empty streets of San Francisco for consolation. I find the consolation I seek while teaching an astonishing text I’ve recently discovered in Jerusalem about an inconsolable child.

This child is somewhat concealed but resides in Lamentations, the core biblical text recited on the floor during the Ninth of Av, our phantasmagoric recounting of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples and thus our need for consolation this Shabbat. As a dirge, Lamentations focuses on the divine need for consolation. The God of the biblical Lamentations is either the wailing Daughter of Zion or the fallen God of War. But in the late medieval Spanish commentary Zohar Hadash, it is the inconsolable child who is wailing. Wandering through the ruins of Jerusalem, we run into these orphaned children sifting through the ashes of Jerusalem and crying out:

“Every day we approach Mother’s bed, but we do not find Her there. We ask after Her — no one heeds us. We ask after Her bed — overturned. We ask after Her throne — collapsed. We ask Her palaces — they swear they know nothing of Her whereabouts. We ask the dust — no footprints there.”

I hear the wailing of the real Children of Israel in Zohar Hadash who are crying: “We are the orphans, without Father or Mother! We cast our eyes upon the walls of our Mother’s house, but it is destroyed, and we can’t find Her…”

No longer servants or children, we are now all orphans. After the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples, we orphans bang our heads against a wall that is also wailing. We are like children crying out, “Mommy, Mommy, wall, wall!” These words echo Zohar Hadash’s imagined barbed missives being sent back and forth by Babylonian Jewry to Israeli Jewry, challenging each other’s authenticity and calling out each other’s “bad faith.”

In choosing not to leave the diaspora of Babylon, quips the Israeli community, you should weep for yourselves, not the Temple you never frequented. You chose your fate, you live in a place of darkness because your self-concern still overrides your concern for the Jerusalem Temple, the Holy Land, so weep for your own sorry fate (ZH 91a).

The response of Babylonian Jewry from the depths of diaspora comes later on, when they finally have enough courage to respond to their Israeli brethren: “It is fitting that you cry, and it befits you to eulogize and mourn when you see Mother’s sanctuaries destroyed, the place of Her bed upended in mourning. She is absent, having flown away from you, leaving you unaware of Her whereabouts. You might say She is with us in exile, dwelling among us. If so, we should rejoice, for indeed the prophet Ezekiel saw Her here with all Her legions. But actually for this we must weep and eulogize, like jackals and desert ostriches. She has been banished from Her chambers and we are in exile. She comes to us in bitterness and sees us daily in all our afflictions, with all the statues and decrees they impose upon us constantly. But She cannot remove these scourges from us, nor all the ordeals that we suffer” (ZH 92b).

So we join the orphans of Jerusalem as diaspora jackals and desert ostriches. The daring theological imagery of this medieval commentary has never rung more true, the more deeply devoid we feel of any possible consolation in the current ruins of a Jerusalem that is tearing the Jewish people apart— just makes you wanna cry! Precisely; that’s the point of a real dirge.

As we enter this Sabbath of consolation, nicknamed Nachamu, let us all listen more deeply to the caterwauling concatenation of the inconsolable child. Let us never forget that as a community of orphans we continue mourning the emptiness of our collective authenticity, which is manifesting as a deep rupture between diaspora and Israeli Jewry.

This wandering and weeping is within us all, wailing “Mommy, mommy, wall, wall!” as a naive child would. He presses on, searching for his divine mother, long gone from the wall, so all that remains is this inconsolable wailing. Alas, the Prophet Isaiah comes carrying “postcards of the hanging” and a torn heart to console each child with these words: “Nachamu, Nachamu”: There, there, be consoled! Yonder is your consolation coming, O orphaned ones…