‘When the month of Av enters, our joy is diminished’, says the Mishnah (c 200CE). Between the first of Av and the Fast of the Ninth of Av one does not eat meat or drink wine, except on Shabbat, wear new clothes, do the washing, except for essential hygiene, get married or hold joyous gatherings.
It seems strange this year that just as Ramadan ends and the feast of Eid begins, we in the Jewish community are lessening our joy. It’s at odds with the traditional upbeat Jewish note of tikvah, hope. So why do it?
The plain answer is: because we remember. We recall the destruction of both the First and the Second Temple on the 9th of Av, and the decrees, burnings, exiles and expulsions which have marked Jewish history.
For many people, though, that merely pushes the question one level back: ‘Why remember these events of long ago? Isn’t there enough to live with now, today?’
That’s the point. ‘It’s a wonderful world,’ but not always, and not for everyone.
There are three things we all care about, whether we acknowledge it or not: people, nature and civilisation. Everyone finds people irritating at times, but we’re thoroughly dependent on one another, practically and emotionally. One only has to think of the sounds of the voices of those we love. How we miss them when they are not there. How happy we are to hear them, especially after absence has made the heart grow fonder. How we take their background clatter and chatter for granted, until it is not there.
We are similarly dependent on civilisation, more than we like to think, on ‘services’ like water, food, electricity, transport, communication, satellites. I recently heard, and thought it must be an exaggeration, that if satellite-systems ceased to function, the world would come to a halt. But there’s nothing so basic as food and water.
They remind us that we are all reliant on nature, as The Preacher says in Ecclesiastes, ‘the king is slave to the field.’ We need the bees, the birds and the thousands of organisms we can’t even see with the bare eye. We require them for our physical survival, and we need them for our spiritual wellbeing.
These domains together constitute creation, which we celebrate and bless each day, or at least we should. But we also inhabit and participate in a world of destruction.
As a rabbi I spend much time listening. I hear a lot of heartache, have wished countless times it lay within my power to heal, and have often prayed in silence that God reach the pain inaccessible to human hands with the touch of consolation and fresh courage. Sometimes lives are wounded by the intractable realities of mortality and illness. But often the hurts are needlessly inflicted by carelessness or cruelty.
Every day the media shows us villages and cities destroyed by war or floods or famine. It is a horror beyond my capacity to imagine. This is how my grandfather described returning to his beloved Frankfurt eleven years after he fled in 1939:
Shattered and shaken, one walks through the old, no longer recognisable streets and squares. In the hollow grey frames of the broken windows dwells terror and from above the clouds look through.
I can’t bear to speak about what we do to nature, the broken wings and oil-soiled feathers of its once free flight.
If we don’t think about destruction, frankly and with the determined purpose to do all we can to end it, we shall never preserve the wonder and glory of creation.
The full name of this month, which begins in sadness, is Menachem Av, ‘Comforter Av’: if we look with pity, compassion and remorse, – and only if we look thus – we will know what we must do to bring consolation.