By Donna S. Michelson
In the early ’70s, I came to appreciate folk singer Don Mclean, and my oldest sister had the 8-track recording of “American Pie.” Long before I understood what the majority of the lyrics meant or what their cultural relevance was, I loved the songs. The last offering is “Babylon.” Taking lyrics from Psalm 137:1, this version is a haunting and beautiful final echo of the times, tying together the entire album’s theme of loss:
By the waters of Babylon
We lay down and wept for thee, Zion.
We remember thee, Zion.
In a live recording, Mclean gave a cursory and universal explanation to the lyrics, saying that even though this is a somewhat sad song, at the end, there is a glimmer of hope. That is a through-line to so many Jewish events and customs. When a groom smashes the glass at the end of a wedding and all assembled yell out, “Mazel Tov!” this commemorates the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple some 2,000 years ago. Something major to be remembered indeed. We may be rejoicing in the reuniting of the two souls standing together under the chuppah, but we take a moment to reflect on what happened before they got there. We may move on, but we will never forget. No minor feat.
Each January, we celebrate the Fast of Tevet, which this year will land on the secular New Year’s Day. So, you may whoop it up with champagne and caviar at the stroke of midnight: but come the dawn, you need to start your fast. But why? Here’s a brief history: Nebuchadnezzer, an Emperor, gave the order to destroy Solomon’s Temple and exile the Jews to Babylonia. (Apparently we had this coming, as we had been letting the team down and not following the rules for quite some time.) The Jews grieved over being thrown out of their home and for the loss of their Holy Place. Not only did they weep, they refused to sing about Jerusalem when taunted by their oppressors. They were in exile physically and emotionally.
In spite of all this, however, G-d, in his infinite compassion, forgave us and kept his covenant with us. We lucked out again. Technically speaking, this is considered a “minor” fast, as opposed to the “major” fast that we do for Yom Kippur. It doesn’t seem fitting, though, if you look at what a major event this actually was. It should have more heft, observance-wise. But, no. It’s a veritable footnote on the list of holidays to most people.
Destruction and rebuilding seem like an endless cycle for our people. Even within the narrower scope of our day-to-day lives, there are probably countless examples of instances when we have had to start over; the loss of a loved one through death or the termination of a significant relationship, the loss of employment, the loss of a dwelling. Minor events in the scheme of mankind’s history, but they come with major personal consequences. Even if we feel the destruction was not of our making, we are still compelled to complete the rebuilding if we are to survive. We’re not alone in these struggles and these tests are nothing new. Job. Noah. Moses. Sarah. Naomi. Ruth. All faced devastating losses or dealt with unfulfilled lives. All were in an undeniable position to move on, spiritually or geographically – or both. These chronicles are motivational reminders that you can rise from the rubble or the ashes and create a new life – and be made more powerful for having lived through what seem like insurmountable odds. Major hurdles. Minor miracles.
Donna Salzman Michelson is a dyed-in-the-wool nice Jewish girl from New Jersey. A 30-year San Diego resident, she lives with her husband, a retired Navy Chief Petty Officer and certified chef, and is the ever-kvelling mother of two grown sons. When not blogging about Judaica, she devotes her time to a local non-profit in Banker’s Hill. Email her at email@example.com.