The Meaning of Shir HaMa'alot
What Jacob and Joseph Teach Us About Returning Home
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Planting with Tears and the Return to Zion
Can mourning bring us closer to redemption? This series dives deep into Shir Hama'alot (Psalm 126) to uncover incredible insights into dealing with grief, and the pivotal role mourning may play in building a connection with God.
We sit on the ground, surrounded sometimes by candles. We sing elegies written centuries ago. We mourn the deaths of people we could never have known. We mourn the loss of a Temple we have never seen.
Why Do We Mourn the Ancient Tragedy of Tisha B'av?You know, mourning is a very specialized thing, as Judaism defines it. It's a way we deal with grief. But here's the thing about grief: It lessens over time.
Think about personal grief. Someone dies. It's terrible. You're shocked, you're sad, you feel you can't go on. But that feeling lessens over time, and the halacha reflects the natural ebb of our feelings. There's shiva, the seven day period of mourning, there's shloshim, a 30-day period of mourning. There's a 12-month period of mourning. In each, the intensity of grief fades. And gradually, you assume normal life again.
To be sure, we never forget. Every year, on the anniversary of a death, we observe yahrtzeit. But yahrtzeit isn't a day of mourning so much as it is a day of remembrance.
Somehow, when it comes to mourning for exile and for the loss of the Temple and Jerusalem, it's different. On this anniversary of the Roman and Babylonian conquests of the Temple, we don't just devote our time to reacquainting ourselves with the Temple and its meaning. We mourn again. We take off our shoes, we sit on the floor, and we cry.
Why do we do things this way? Why is the grief that we, as a nation, try to feel for the loss of the Temple so very different from almost all other kinds of grief that we come across? Two thousand years have passed since the Romans laid waste to Jerusalem. How come we still mourn, year after year?
Tisha B'av and the Return from Exile: Grief... and Hope?And here's a second question. As it happens, Tisha B'Av is also a day of hope. Hope that one day, the pain and sorrow that has been our lot will cease for good; that one day, exile shall end, Jerusalem shall be rebuilt and the presence of God shall return to its precincts. But this hope for redemption is every bit as confusing as the mourning aspect of Tisha B'av. Because it feels like this process of redemption – the process of national rehabilitation for which generations of Jews have pined for – at least in some ways, has already begun to happen.
Yes, the Temple isn't rebuilt, the borders of the land are still in flux; yes, national security is still very much an issue – but the Land of Israel is once more in Jewish hands. A state has been established. It feels like that process of redemption has begun to get started.
And here's what's so confusing about that. The way this process has maybe started is not the way you would have predicted it would have started.
Has the Jewish Return to Israel Already Started?If you were living at any point during this long, 2,000 year exile and someone asked you: "So, I see you say in your prayers that you hope Israel will once again take possession of its land; that Jerusalem will rebuilt; that God will return to Zion – how, pray tell, do you see that happening?" What would you answer?
Well, you might say, I'm not really sure, but it will all really happen when the Messiah comes. You might talk about flying on wings of eagles, headed back to Israel, called back by a humble but pious man, a leader from the Biblical House of David, who rides through the Gates of Old Jerusalem on a donkey, and transforms our world with signs and miracles to boot. It will be astounding, you'd say! You'll see.
And yet, if in fact what we've seen in our day and age is at least the beginning of Israel's long awaited redemption, it's all happened...without all of this. Not saying the man with the donkey will never show up – but look at what we've seen thus far. If you stand back and look at it, it is just so … unexpected.
What has happened? After a show trial of a Jewish artillery captain in France, a man gets inspired and begins to dream of a Jewish state. He's not traditionally observant in any way, he wouldn't recognize a Siddur if it hit him in the head. He had a dream. And it begins to catch on.
People start moving to the land of Israel, seeking to build it – but who are these people? Still no pious people with donkeys. Still no righteous king from the House of David. These guys are Labor Zionists, atheists, many of them. They are refugees. Refugees from the Russian Pogroms of 1882. Refugees from the Holocaust. They are, many of them, disillusioned with God. Maybe that's too kind a word: They are, many of them, angry at God.
They are searching for something – but they aren't searching for religious enlightenment or religious Nirvana or to re-establish the lost House of David or any of that – they are searching to build a homeland for their people, plain and simple.
It all seems so confusing. This isn't how we imagined it would all start. How could people for whom religion is not even an afterthought be the de facto leaders of the greatest religiously significant event in the history of Jewry over the last 2,000 years?
So these are the two questions I want to consider with you. They are, in a way, two questions that modernity has thrust upon us: How do we, in modern times, relate to an ancient loss? Why do we relate to it with a grief that never withers away? And, how do we understand a hope for redemption that, in modern times, has begun to be realized in a way that is utterly unexpected?
To begin to come to grips with these things, I want to go back to an ancient source indeed.
Shir HaMa'alot: Uncovering a Hidden Meaning in Psalm 126I want to go back to the Book of Psalms and read with you a chapter, a Psalm, that envisions a turning point – a moment in time at which perpetual mourning yields to the giddy exuberance of redemption. That Psalm is known as Shir HaMa'alot. Fascinatingly, Israel, at its birth, considered using Shir HaMa'alot as its national anthem, in the place of Hatikvah.
What is this song about? By tradition, we sing it before Grace After Meals, every Shabbat and holiday. Many of us know the words by heart. But it is one thing to know the words, and it is another to really understand them.
I want to go and look at this Psalm with you and cast away whatever preconceived notions we might have had about it – and really see it with you as if for the very first time. I want to discover with you the breathtaking depths that I think are there to be mined.
I think Shir HaMa'alot will teach us much about both the mourning and the hope of Tisha B'Av. Come with me, and let's begin to see what it has to tell us.