Address for Tisha BeAv

The Kavod Jewish Chapel (formerly known as Allied Jewish Chapel) has sponsored a Tish’a BeAv service from time to time. This year, and last, it was on Sunday afternoon and included readings from Lamentations and the Haftarah. Poems and responses to the Destruction of the Temples, the Holocaust, and other Jewish tragedies were recited. But last year (2015) was the 100th anniversary of the event that gave rise to the term “Genocide,” and the “great catastrophe” of the Armenians did not go unmarked, nor did a representative sample of other world tragedies.

This address is lightly edited from remarks made last year on the afternoon of Tish’a BeAv. 

Seth Ward
Kavod Jewish Chapel

Tish’a BeAv 2015 (with very minor editing August 2016)

Why Tisha BeAv? Why an ecumenical observance?

This is the day of national mourning for the Jewish people. Jews mourn, according to tradition, the Report of the Spies that led to 40 years’ wandering in the desert and the death of an entire generation, the Destruction of both Temples—Bar Kokhba rebellion and the Temple plowed under. Many elegies added over the centuries note other tragedies, such as the executions of leading Rabbis by the Romans, the crusades, the expulsion from Spain, the commencement of a period of World Wars in Europe, and the Holocaust.

GRIEF. We cannot go on to face the future without allocating time to grieve over the past. The Holocaust is fresh in our minds—indeed, it continues to shape modern thoughts about good and evil, about human inhumanity, about the possibility of eliminating an entire nation—genocide.  We remember it on Yom HaShoah (Yom Hazikkaron lashoah vehagevurah, “Memorial Day for Holocaust and Heriosim” on or about the 27th of Nisan), on International Holocaust Remembrance Day (Jan 27, marking the liberation of Auschwitz); on Tisha BeAv, and on Yom haKaddish Haklali (10th of Tevet). And many mark it every day of the year.

Our tradition wisely though has us not merely remember, but to identify so totally that we are present, we participate in the grief in symbolic ways that go beyond readings and memories. On Tish’a Beav we adopt the posture of mourners—those whose memory of tragic loss is still vivid, those whose dead are “still in front of us.”  –Like mourners in the Jewish tradition, we do not wear proper shoes or take showers. Like mourners also, for religious Jews, the normal pattern of prayer is turned upside down; those who are about to bury their dead do not join a community for prayer, and those who put on tefillin daily do not do so—so too, Jews do not wear tefillin on Tisha BeAv morning, and do not greet each other or converse.

To bring home the point, our tradition also asks us to refrain from eating and drinking for twenty-four hours—the most serious of four fasts decreed to perpetuate the memory of national destruction.

Our tradition asks us to feel the deprivation, to experience the disaster, to internalize the hurt and pain. Tish’a beAv asks us to identify ourselves with the horror of those whose lives were upended by catastrophe, to be there with those whose loved ones perished, to bear witness to the tragedy. And, we are asked to bear witness as individuals, as family, as a people, and as part of wider humanity.

The ecumenical observance—our invitation to neighbors and friends at Kavod—reflects conversations in the Kavod Chapel. Following the words of Isaiah, we hope that our “House will be called a House of Prayer for all Peoples.” The book of Lamentations is part of Christian Scriptures as well as Jewish, and all of us are moved by calamities ancient and modern. The killing in today’s Middle East boggles our minds. (2016: In the past year, we have seen the spread of terror and destruction—violence seems increasing in geometric proportions, both domestic and global, in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere).

We all lived through news reports about atrocities in Darfur and Rwanda, Bosnia and Cambodia.

Some of us, especially the Russians among us, may remember atrocities internal to the Soviet Union, resulting from the Civil War about 100 years ago, from the Golodmor famines caused by Soviet policies, or the “doctors plot” delo vrachey that might have led to the killing of all Soviet Jews had Stalin not died in 1953.

What do we do in the light of such pain, such loss?

First—Memory is important—so is grief, giving memory urgency. We must not simply remember these events as ancient history, but also remember and internalize the pain and the sorrow and the loss. We must try, for a few moments, to see ourselves not as modern observers of the tragedies, but as eye witnesses, sharing in the horror and grief, of a world turned upside down.

Second—Words do not suffice, but we must articulate our grief in words and acts.  Fasting is accompanied by recitations of texts and poems, elegies and laments. Grief that is merely internalized—can that ever be enough? Sometimes it is. I go back and forth—considering the point of the words being to elicit the grief and tears, or considering the point of the grief as eliciting a context in which we can try to express our sorrow in words, valorizing articulate expression to our emotions.

Third–The central question we ask on Tish’a BeAv is “how can this be?” Aicha. “How?” (the Hebrew title of the Biblical book of Lamentations).  Which brings me to the third point—we focus on the “How can this be?” rather than on cursing those who brought this situation about, and rather than on “what if.”

We never justify evil, but the focus is not on the destroyers. Those who wrecked our lives, destroyed our heritage, are not forgiven, not understood as “merely instruments of the Divine plan.”  But our tradition does not focus on them, not on Tish’a BeAv, and generally not on Yom Kippur and not on other occasions. Rather, it returns again and again to ask ourselves whether we could have been better people—and ultimately this is really the only possible true response to the question, “How can this be?” — “What can we do better now?”  And to repentance for anything we did, or did not do; forgiveness for our own roles, whatever they were; for the destruction of the Second Temple, sin’at hinam “hatred for no reason” is often quoted, and removing this from our system—the evil of stereotyping, of preconceived notions, of evil generalizations—this is a good place to start.

Fourth—Already in the afternoon, there is a theme of consolation: we all know that we must move forward. There is reason for hope, need for hope. A beautiful legend says that when the Israelites were doomed to wander for 40 years, each year’s cohort of deaths occurred on Tisha BeAv—the anniversary of the spies report that doomed them.  The final year of wandering, the Israelites dug graves in preparation for the annual die-off, as they had each year and no one died. The day the Israelites realized that this was so was the 15th of Av, celebrated as a day of Joy—but remember that actually Tisha BeAv marks the end of the dying as well as its cause and beginning. Another midrash takes this theme even larger, linking the date of the destruction of the Temple to the date of the birth of the Messiah, who, according to Jewish tradition, is awaiting the call to restore the Temple.

On Yom Kippur, at Yizkor, on Yarhtzeits, our memories spur us to repent and change; so too, the themes running throughout the day on Tisha BeAv echo the great prophetic call to righteousness—to justice—and to mercy.  Indeed, one could say that the 7 weeks of prophetic readings of consolation read from Tish’a BeAv until Rosh Hashanah map a path from consolation to repentance, from the hard emotions of grief, to the even harder emotions of self-examination and recommitment to both justice and mercy, and to acts of tzedaka righteousness and charity.

This Temple shall, as Isaiah says, be, called a House of prayer for all people—and on Tish’a BeAv, as we mourn the destruction of our temples and our national existence so many centuries ago, we also hope for the restoration of the Temple—the Jewish Temple to be sure, with all that this entails—but perhaps even more important, a House for all peoples.

If our Temple is to be a house of prayer for all peoples, then we must keep all people in mind. We set aside time for grief, and to remember; to articulate our grief in acts and words, although none of this is ever sufficient; to ask “How can this be?” but not to focus on the perpetrators of evil and destroyers of entire nations, but on what we can do better: removing senseless hatred, insensitivity and stereotypes; by becoming the best people we ourselves as an act that honors the memories of people—of entire nations—who no longer are whole. Finally, we must grieve but also seek consolation and purpose: and start with increasing, in our own lives, justice, mercy and righteousness (expressed as words, deed and gifts of charity).

May the grief and despair we feel at the destruction, war and genocide, ancient and modern, ours and all humanities’ be matched by the hope for redemption, and that all people will turn towards the values of justice, fairness, equity and peace that it espouses.

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