‘Al eleh ani bochi’a – for these things I weep’ – I write with a heavy heart, as is the wont on this Sabbath before the fast of the Ninth of Av, Shabbat Katan, ‘the diminished Shabbat’. This year it will indeed be diminished as the joy of the Sabbath yields in its last hour to the commencement of the bleak fast of Tishah be’Av which commemorate destruction.
To me the fast is less about the destruction of the First and Second Temples than about the sacking of the city in which they stood. True, the Temples were profoundly important, the centre of Jewish worship in the ancient world; to this very day, whenever we pray, we turn to face towards where they stood. But, like the vast majority of Jews, I wouldn’t want them rebuilt, even if that were a possibility. Judaism grew, remarkably, courageously and irreversibly, following their destruction. It developed into the religion of community, prayer and learning for all, accessible to all (at least ideally) and capable of replication anywhere, which we know and cherish today.
It’s the destruction of cities which pains and terrifies me, Jerusalem twice, and so many other cities and quarters, Juderias and ghettoes, stetls and houses of learning, through the centuries since. It’s the haunting descriptions of what parents suffered when they watched their children starve, and what children suffered when they realised that their all-providing parents were now powerless to help them. ‘“Where is corn and wine?”, they cried, as they fainted of hunger and died, curled against their mothers’. (Lamentations 2)
Those of us over a certain age don’t need to be told; such scenes inhabit sectors of their memory which revisit them in nightmares. The rest of us have seen and heard on the media, – from Sarajevo, from Aleppo this very day. How can one not feel pity for the people of Aleppo, for the hungry, terrified children, for the parents desperate to get their offspring out of there, for the victims of gas attacks?
“And a few minutes later, the smell of gas started spreading… and I felt my eyes burning and difficulties in breathing,” he said. “The smell was very strong – beyond any description”. (BBC News)
I heard a spokesman plead for longer ceasefires: ‘But there are two million people in that city; the convoys have to be very large. Three hours is not enough time!’
‘Al eleh ani bochi’a – for these things we weep’ – and also for the everyday sorrows we know too well: friends ill, dying, losing those they have loved and lived alongside most of their lives.
But, and it’s a crucial, transformative but, we would not weep, or even think to weep, if we did not love life. There is no sorrow in the loss of something hateful, no compassion for what one holds in contempt. We weep because trees are beautiful; because human life is capable of indescribable tenderness; because we deeply love the companionship to which we have become so familiar we take it for granted – ‘there, that’s your cup of tea and your biscuit’-; we weep because in the setting sun in the western sky there is something which haunts and humbles us with the intuition of a vast and timeless life-force of unfathomable power and inimitable delicacy. It is these things which make our hearts malleable to compassion and our eyes susceptible to tears.
The liturgy of Tisha Be’Av, and its repeated reality in today’s world, brings before us scene upon scene of destruction, disasters our own people has suffered, and, by extension, those suffered by others. It calls on us not to weep for our lives alone but to expand the circumference of our compassion, to our own people, and to others, and to act so that there is less destructiveness and more companionship, solidarity, joy and creativity in the world.
We should share our moment of existence, which we inhabit so briefly and with such frailty, not in mutual hate, or fear, or disregard; but with gratitude, compassion, and dedication to the nurture of life.