July 12, 2013 admin


‘With my own eyes I’ve seen cruelty and misery. I don’t understand. I weep.’
This line may serve as a summary of that scroll of extraordinary force and impact which we read on the night of Tishah Be’Av. Its English name is Lamentations, no doubt after the Latin. But the Hebrew title is more powerful: Eichah, which simply means ‘How’.
It is not clear whether the word, with which three of the five chapters of the book commence, indicates a question or an exclamation:
           Young children say to their mothers ‘Where is bread and wine?’
           Then die slowly in their mothers’ laps.
Is the writer asking ‘why?’ Or his heart silenced by an inexpressible ‘how’?
The author, by tradition the Prophet Jeremiah, has witnessed the sacking of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. But it feels as if the eyes which observe that scene in the sixth century BCE are the same eyes which have seen the destruction of innumerable cities and villages across ages, the same cruelty and the same suffering. The voice which attempts to describe them says the same words, ‘How!’ ‘Why?’ beyond which lies that vast incomprehensibility which covers like dust the broken interiors of houses and the bodies of those who once inhabited them in peace.  Here is Jerusalem, burnt and plundered by the Romans; here are the villages of Biafra and Cambodia, the suburbs of the cities of Syria.
Why think such horrible thoughts? Why keep such a day as Tishah Be’Av, which combines, at least until the afternoon, the strictures of fasting with the laws of mourning, so that we do not eat or drink or greet one another warmly, but sit on the ground or on low chairs, and reflect? Not many years before he died my father asked me to prepare a list of martyred members of the family and to put it every Ninth of Av next to a candle on the table.
Struggling with my own question, it seems to me that the heart of Tishah Be’Av is solidarity. The Bible contains the terrible image of the man who, to further his own ends, treads mercilessly on the heads of the poor. We don’t know if he sees them but doesn’t care, or if he doesn’t even notice them at all.
I don’t want to be that person, neither through what I do nor what I fail to do. I have a terrible fear that I belong to a civilisation which does sometimes place its heels on the eyeballs of the wretched, though it makes sure they are at the far ends of the earth, or in hidden rooms, or behind walls, where nobody will take heed. I don’t want to make myself a part of it. I have a horror of being subject to cruelty, and an equal horror of being or becoming cruel.
On Tishah Be’Av we sit on the ground because we as a people have often been the victims of gross violence. Equally, we sit symbolically side by side with all who currently are such victims, for this is where our heart and conscience belong.
I had thought Yom Kippur and Tishah Be’Av, Judaism’s two twenty-five hour fasts, were totally different days. After all, Yom Kippur is about goodness, forgiveness and love. But now I realise that love begins right here, in the determination to dedicate ourselves to kindness, awareness, pity and healing.

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