Facing Tisha B’Av

August 8, 2011 by

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If the weather forecasts hold true, the nine days leading up to Tisha B’Av (9th of Av) will be unpleasantly hot. If not for air conditioning, the heat would be oppressive; appropriate conditions for the discomfort that is liturgically required.

Tisha B’Av marks the destruction of the First and Second Temples, which our historical memory (more than actual history) recalls as the beginnings of exile, losses of sovereignty, and as major disruptions to nationalized faith. Its themes are central to Jewish consciousness. To dismiss Tisha B’Av in light of the freedom we celebrate today would be to rewrite the Jewish present without its history.

To interpret Tisha B’Av as an unchanging lamentation about exilic Jewish condition is to miss the point of the classical theology that runs through Megillat Eichah (the Scroll of Lamentations). We may explain the rituals of Tisha B’Av in terms of mourning but it is more correct to view it as the fusion-experience of sitting shiva and observing Yom Kippur.

On the one hand, we mourn for and feel the suffering of our ancestors and, on the other hand, we are linked across time with the deepest forms of introspection that accompany and confront the greatest of tragedies. Midway through the plaintive chanting of Eichah, we are called into this awareness: “Let us search and examine our ways, and turn back to the Lord” (3:40).

Although I cannot see the direct Divine hand in human history as the author of Lamentations does, I am able to witness and consent to the correlative relationship between internal weakness and susceptibility to external threat that is implicit in his description of Jerusalem’s destruction, its causes and effects.

Discord and dissension tear apart the very civic associations that make a nation defendable; a society that no longer maintains a moral standard has lost its defensible reason for being.

On Monday evening I can sit on the floor in a dark synagogue in full acknowledgement of being blessed to live in an age when the earthly Jerusalem is accessible and by so many accounts flourishing.

I will think about the societal rifts and ethical ruptures today that make Tisha B’Av so painfully pertinent even twenty centuries after the second churban habayit (the Destruction of the Temple). Does Tisha B’Av single out Jerusalem for its present moral shortcomings more than it does New York city, Beijing, or Tel Aviv for that matter? Is Eichah a call to all people wherever they live or essentially a Hebrew poem whose national spirit is lost in translation?

My answer is conditioned by a world whose problems are not neatly contained in borders; the contour maps of each human entanglement will determine the necessity for sign-posts and directions in Hebrew or in translation.

Two and half millennia after Eichah, there are poets writing again in Hebrew, living in Jerusalem, and reflecting upon and challenging the world they see up close and the worlds they see when their gaze is far-reaching.

Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000) is that kind of transcendent poet; his Poems of Jerusalem reverberate Eichah’s echoes even as they begin new shouts to be heard across and beyond the Judean hills. When I get up from hearing Megillat Eichah, I will go home and reread these poems.

This excerpt from “Jerusalem 1967” is one such dialogue bridge, linking Jewish past and present, and keeping Tisha B’Av real for me:

I’ve come back to this city where names
are given to distances as if to human beings
and the numbers are not of bus-routes
but: 70 After, 1917, 500
B.C, Forty-Eight. These are the lines
you really travel on.
And already the demons of the past are meeting
with the demons of the future and negotiating about me
above me, their give-and-take neither giving nor taking,
in the high arches of shell-orbits above my head.
A man who comes back to Jerusalem is aware that the places
that used to hurt don’t hurt any more.
But a light warning remains in everything,
Like the movement of a light veil: warning.
(translated by Stephen Mitchell)

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