Excerpted from Dr. Erica Brown’s In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks, co-published with Maggid Books
When Absence is Presence
Since memory is so unreliable and yet so necessary for Jewish life, the sages of the Talmud codified practical memory triggers around Holidays and historical events. Perhaps the most seminal event for which we need a memory jog is the destruction of the Mikdash. Living without it for centuries, and without any real substitute for pilgrimage and sacrifice, necessitated an absolute change in both religious practice and religious mindset. It takes more than one day of fasting and Jeremiah’s lamentations to recreate the universe of faith that was lost. In response to this dilemma, the rabbis instituted a number of practices as daily reminders that life is simply not the same without a central sanctuary to call our own.
The Shulĥan Arukh codifies these laws and places them together in a catalogue of loss:
When the Temple was destroyed, the sages decreed that throughout the generations one was not to build an edifice completely plastered and finished like the buildings of royalty. Rather one should plaster and finish one’s home and leave a cubit-by-cubit space without plaster opposite the threshold. If one were to purchase a courtyard that is already completely plastered, the courtyard may be left to remain in that state; one is not obligated to remove its walls.
If what we lost was a building and the activities that building housed, then our own personal buildings are to be compromised in some way, marked by the loss. It is not uncommon to see an unfinished wall space of about eighteen by eighteen inches, above or opposite doorways in the homes of religious Jews in Israel and, more rarely, in the Diaspora. When we enter and exit that space, we take a moment to reflect on another space in another time, a space that we no longer have and cannot even fully imagine.
But the laws not only reflect large structures, they impact upon more intimate settings, from the interiors of our homes to our very person. The Shulĥan Arukh continues:
Similarly, they [the sages] decreed that when one lays the table for a festive meal, one should leave one place setting empty, absenting the tableware that is usually placed there.
When a woman wears her silver and gold jewelry, she should leave off one piece that she is normally accustomed [to wear] so that she does not don a complete set of jewels.
When a groom takes a bride, ash should be placed on his forehead in the place he dons his phylacteries.
All of these acts are to remember Jerusalem, as it says [Psalms 137:5]: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem…if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.”
We are asked to observe a ritual of emptiness at times of abundance. When we are gathered for a Holiday meal and the wine flows and the table is laden with the best cutlery and china, we leave out one place setting. There is no subtlety to the statement. Something is amiss. Women accustomed to wearing a full set of jewelry bear the slight irritation of leaving out a bit of finery. A handsome groom must mar his appearance on the most obvious and visible part of his face. His forehead becomes a canvas for a spot of ash, the dirty, charred remnants of a fire that cannot
be ignored by him or any of the onlookers, even on this, the most joyous of occasions.
The list of grieving measures continues with the minimization of music post-Temple, and then – in a rather dramatic close – Rabbi Yosef Karo, author of the Shulĥan Arukh, boldly states: “It is prohibited for an individual to fill his mouth with laughter in this world.” This is not an ordinary sacrifice or a slight smirch on a day of happiness; it may
not even be emotionally feasible. The law demands that we dampen a condition of joy rather than a situation of happiness, so that behind the forehead, in the brain, our minds be inherently transformed by a loss that took place two millennia ago. This law is based on a statement made by Rabbi Yoĥanan in the Talmud:
R. Yoĥanan said in the name of R. Shimon b. Yoĥai: It is forbidden to a man to fill his mouth with laughter in this world, because it says, “Then our mouth will be filled with laughter and our tongue with singing” [Psalms 126:2]. When will that be? At the time when, “They shall say among the nations, ‘The Lord hath done great things with these.’”
It was related of Reish Lakish that he never again filled his mouth with laughter in this world after he heard this saying from R. Yoĥanan, his teacher.
Occasions which normally demand happiness, like weddings or the festival of Purim, cannot be experienced with total joy.
In the aggregate, these laws point to an absence which is a presence. We create a physical and emotional void to mimic a void that we do not know. It is more honest than filling in that void with memories we never experienced. Loss is not always about the fullness of memory but about its vast silences. We inherited the void, and sometimes we must occupy it by creating small reminders of loss through sensual absences – the visual reminder of a wall unplastered or a forehead marked, the tactile reminder of a ring not worn, or the auditory reminder of the music not played. These losses are no great sacrifice, just small irritations of a grief not imagined.
Kavana for the Day
Contemplate the loss of something precious to you, perhaps someone you love or a time or place which you cannot recapture. What have you done to create reminders of that loss? What cannot be filled in with photos and objects that you therefore express in other ways? Leave a place setting empty or take off a piece of jewelry or an object that you normally wear for one day to honor the memory of tragedy in Jewish history. How did it feel? How conscious were you that something was missing? Were you able to make the abstract leap from the loss to the memory of tragedy?