“To hope is to give yourself to the future — and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.” Rebecca Solnit
“Eicha! Alas! Alone sits the city once great with people!” Thus begins the Book of Lamentations/Megillat Eicha, for the 9th of Av/Tisha B’av, considered to be the saddest day of the Jewish year. At evening services, CBJ members read and chant the verses of Eicha in turn, telling the harrowing story of the destruction of Jerusalem. This year, it takes place on Saturday night, July 17, at 8:00 pm. I hope you will be present, as we observe Tisha B’Av. It is a powerful and moving service.
In preparation for Tisha B’Av, the theme of loss builds in the preceding days. The 17th of Tammuz/Shiva Asar B’Tammuz, just passed, is a minor fast day that commemorates numerous calamities that have befallen the Jewish people. The Three Weeks come next, a time of semi-mourning. Tradition encourages us to refrain from getting a haircut, or getting married, to signal this sombeer mood. These practices intensify, starting on the 1st Av, culminating in the full fast day of the 9th of Av/Tisha B’av. We mourn the destruction of both the first temple, and the second temple, events which each rent the fabric of Jewish life. In addition to the full fast, on Tisha B’Av we express our grief in ways similar to being at a house of shiva, we remove our shoes, we might sit on the floor, we chant the verses of Megillat Eicha, we do not greet one another socially. The Book of Lamentations/Megillat Eicha describes the horror at the destruction of the second Temple, and of Jerusalem. Though an outside force brought this ruin, we are taught that among the causes of this tragedy was the behavior of Jews themselves, giving in to baseless hatred/sinat chinam, and thereby unravelling the fabric of society.
Why do we observe this cycle of loss upon loss? What is the point of focusing on so much sorrow? Can’t we focus on positive elements of Jewish life and history? But grief, this communal grief, needs a space in our lives. It is part of the cycle of life. Memory brings the past into the present, and allows us to honor our ancestors.
“May their memory be for a blessing,” we say when comforting a mourner. Yizkor, the memorial service of the High Holy Days and Festivals so many people to shul, even those who are not regulars to prayer, out fo the imperative to sustain the memory of our loved ones. We hold a seder on Passover, so the next generation will learn and remember the story of having been enslaved in Egypt, and redeemed by God. We say, “Never Again,” as we demand that the world remember the Holocaust, so as not allow humanity to repeat it. On Tisha B’Av, Megillat Eicha cries out, “Remember o God, what has befallen us…” and we listen.
Perhaps this sequence from the 17th of Tammuz to Tisha B’Av is there to remind us that we are not just victims, but that we are survivors. To remind us that hope carves a path from brokenness to repair, from despair to resilience. If we pair grief with hope, we can find meaning, and build on the foundation of history. The Judaism we practice today would not exist as it does if the second Temple had not been destroyed.
After the destruction of the second Temple, “the rabbis turned their attention to the codification of Jewish law, shifting the focus of Judaism from Temple to Torah, to creating a Judaism whose invisible walls could not be breached by any intruder, no matter how heavily armed.” (George Robinson)
In her book, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, Rebecca Solnit writes, “To hope is to give yourself to the future — and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.” Each generation has to drive forward their present moment, to a better world, and I believe that this striving, based on hope, has the best chance to succeed. Looking back shows us how far we have come. A people almost destroyed, we strengthened our faith with ethics of mercy, justice, kindness and rigor.
On Tisha B’Av, we come together out of our tenacity, our persistence, and our connection to one another, fueled by the remembrance of the past and looking to the future.