It is all too easy for me to read Eicha or kinot and feel sad for the losses that I have experienced personally. Experiencing communal losses, especially losses that took place so long ago, has always been more difficult. One of the challenges of Tisha B'Av for me is to move away from reading the lamentations of Eicha and personalizing them (as I tend to1), and to try to think about what it means for a community to be destroyed and what that destruction did to us, rather than how our lives might sometimes look as tragic as Jeremiah's lamentations.
I was sitting, listening to Eicha last night, and the second half of this verse suddenly blew me away with its beauty:
I can't say that I love the JPS (1917) translation. I would translate it as: "For your brokenness is as great as the sea, who can heal you?" The implication clearly being: Nobody can heal you.
Hearing this verse read last night made me feel, as perhaps nothing ever had before, that things were so horribly undone with the destruction of the Temples and subsequent exile that they can never be done up again. My life was irrevocably changed by that event, and that the tragic events of those years somehow lives in on each of us. The brokenness of that time was so great that it, in fact, could not and can not be repaired. Somehow, instead of reading my personal life as a gloss over the text of Eicha, I was able to read Eicha as a gloss on my own life. Rather than "I am that," I felt "that is me."
I can't say what life would have been like had the Babylonians not sacked Jerusalem in 586 BCE or the Romans in 70 CE. If the prophecy of Deuteronomy 4:272 hadn't come about, how would the world be different? How wold the Jewish people be different? Would we still be sacrificing animals in the Temple? Would there be a priestly class and a class of Levites that ate special food (i.e., maaser)? Would instant messaging have been invented in the Land of Israel rather than the State of Israel? Would psychoanalysis exist? Would Hollywood? Would Spain be different? Would Germany? Some of these may seem like silly questions, but maybe they aren't. We would live in a different world if these two tragedies hadn't happened.
My life would certainly be quite different. I would not have spent the past five years working in the field of Jewish education in New York City; I would not have spent the past summer studying Talmud and midrash and halacha. I cannot calculate the extent to which my life, both inner and outer, is shaped by an ancestral history of exile, oppression, emigration, and immigration. I would not be who I am today without my dual status as both an insider3 and an outsider4 in the United States. Even if I had grown up in Israel and somehow didn't have this feeling of being an outsider in a majority culture, I would be a person entirely shaped by living in a state that arose during modernity, not a state in continuous existence from the time of the Romans.
Part of me wants to say that if that had somehow not happened, if our ancestors had not so royally messed up, Jerusalem might still be a "קִרְיָה נֶאֱמָנָה," a "faithful city," about which is said "מְלֵאֲתִי מִשְׁפָּט, צֶדֶק יָלִין בָּהּ," "she was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her" [Isaiah 1:21]. I do not mean to cast general aspersions on the modern city of Jerusalem; I wish to imagine, briefly, a world in which Jerusalem was now and has been for the past 2000 years the widely-recognized seat of righteousness and justice in the world. Can you imagine that? Could that have happened, or was that merely a dream of a frustrated prophet?
Something I've thought about a lot lately is that when we mourn, we mourn not only for the tremendous loss of life and the Temples, but for the losses that have plagued us since that time because of those tragedies and for the lost potential that evaporated when those tragedies occurred. This is a natural thing to think of when we lose a human being before his or her time (what they might have been! what they might have done!), but when a community is prematurely cut off from its homeland, it's less natural to think in those terms. But, in many ways, that is the heart of this tragedy.
The description of how deeply and irrevocably the ancient Israelites disregarded their eternal covenant with God up also struck me this year, perhaps for the first time. Rather than wondering how such total destruction could ever have been warranted, I felt myself channeling Isaiah and Jeremiah and railing a bit at the ancient Israelites. How could you have done that? And, having done that, how could you ask God to save you? I wondered how the text of Eicha could be so shocked at the destruction and plead so willfully for God to remember his covenant if the Israelites had so clearly ignored their half of the deal.
Because of a d'var Torah that was I gave several times during the Three Weeks, I spent a lot of time before Tisha B'Av reading Jeremiah 11:
What were you thinking? What was so tempting about wood and stone? The feeling I had is also reflected earlier in Jeremiah (2:27):
It wasn't only that they were worshiping idols. They were also being unethical in their interpersonal relations (Jeremiah 5:1: "שׁוֹטְטוּ בְּחוּצוֹת יְרוּשָׁלִַם, וּרְאוּ-נָא וּדְעוּ וּבַקְשׁוּ בִרְחוֹבוֹתֶיהָ, אִם-תִּמְצְאוּ אִישׁ, אִם-יֵשׁ עֹשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט מְבַקֵּשׁ אֱמוּנָה", Jeremiah 5:28: "דִּין לֹא-דָנוּ, דִּין יָתוֹם וְיַצְלִיחוּ; וּמִשְׁפַּט אֶבְיוֹנִים, לֹא שָׁפָטוּ"), which somehow bothers me more but is also more understandable to me.
After all, how often do I walk by a poor person on the street, asking for money, and give nothing? (Almost every day.) How often do I lie around, watching television or reading blogs instead of doing justice and seeking truth? (Too often.) And what am I losing and what am I at the risk of destroying, by my willful blindness and inaction? (I do not know and, I daresay, on most days, I do not care.)
The messages of Jeremiah and Isaiah are clearly very simplistic: Do not sin; if you sin you will suffer greatly; oh, no! you've sinned and now great suffering is happening. But it is also poignant and so often the way of the world. We don't like to think of the connection between sin and suffering, because of its implication that suffering means that someone has sinned. But I don't know if I have such a problem with the reverse, that sin leads to suffering. If you don't treat the widow and the orphan right; if you become corrupt; if you worship material goods rather than God; your society will fall apart and everyone--even the suckling infants--will suffer.
This year, after thinking that I wasn't really getting into it over the past three weeks, it was almost too much for me to bear in the end: the totality of the sin and then the graphic descriptions of the near totality of the destruction. It washed over me, the brokenness of the people Israel, then and now, that was as great as the sea, and I felt (Jeremiah 8:23):
It all seemed so pointless and avoidable yet utterly irreparable, and I couldn't stop obsessing how vastly different the state of the world might be if it hadn't gone that way. What if, instead of Tisha B'Av, a day when we remember injustice and turning to false gods and the subsequent destruction, we had a day to celebrate this (Isaiah 1:17)?
|יז לִמְדוּ הֵיטֵב דִּרְשׁוּ מִשְׁפָּט, אַשְּׁרוּ חָמוֹץ; שִׁפְטוּ יָתוֹם, רִיבוּ אַלְמָנָה.||17 Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.|
1. For example, I would have read [Lamentations 3:8]
|ח גַּם כִּי אֶזְעַק וַאֲשַׁוֵּעַ, שָׂתַם תְּפִלָּתִי.||8 Yea, when I cry and call for help, He shutteth out my prayer.|
2. Deuteronomy 4:27:
|27 And the LORD shall scatter you among the peoples, and ye shall be left few in number among the nations, whither the LORD shall lead you away.|
4. someone who eats differently, who celebrates different holidays, someone who grew up in a bilingual household