July 24, 2015 admin

Pregnant to good pity

I was in Poland this week and saw plenty of sites which accord painfully with the sad mood of the Fast of the Tishah be’Av, which begins towards the close of Shabbat and lasts until dark on Sunday (deferred by 24 hours so as not to fall on Shabbat itself).

Most haunting was the Jewish cemetery in the small town of Ostrow Lubelski, where my father’s aunt and all her close family were sent into exile from Poznan, and from where they were later deported to Treblinka in 1942. The site was marked by small white metal placards like road signs round the periphery stating that this was a Jewish cemetery. All that remained was an empty field, the long yellowing grass interspersed with flowers. Hidden in the middle and only to be found by the callous or intrepid, was a huddle of broken gravestones, half a name here, half an inscription there. A more desolate testament to the capacity to cause thousands of lives to vanish without trace would be hard to imagine.

Tisha Be’Av lies immediately before us. I want to focus not on the elegies but on the hope, on the tradition of the Jerusalem Talmud that this sad date will one day become a holiday, because on it the Messiah is born (Berachot 2:4).

I’m not sure I believe in a ‘personal messiah’, in one single being sent by God to redeem the whole of history. But I certainly believe in the personal redemptive capacity within each one of us, our ability to help turn suffering into understanding, loneliness into community, and desolation into hope. It is in order to do precisely this that we remember and reflect on tragedy and destruction.

One of my favourite Hebrew words is hesed; loving or faithful kindness. In the Bible it indicates attitudes and actions of goodness and generosity within the partnership between person and God, from person to person, nation to nation, and towards all life.

Kindness is sometimes slighted as a dull and middle-aged virtue. Putting oneself to the test of never saying an unkind word or doing an unkind act for just a single day, or week, is likely to cause anyone who holds such a view to revise their opinion.

Hesed embraces hospitality, caring for the sick, helping others at any and every stage of life, comforting the bereaved, and avoiding hurtfulness in any and every deed and word. As the Talmud says, ‘eyn lahem shiur – these things have no limit’.

Tishah be’Av directs attention to a profound and universal challenge: can we take our sufferings and transmute them into compassion? It’s thoughtless to suppose that the more a person has suffered, the kinder they will be. The heart often responds to cruelty in the same way as the body reacts to a fist; it takes evasive action. There’s always the danger that pain and hurts make us not softer-, but harder-hearted. It takes particular love and insight, and often help from others, to enable harsh experiences to become a more compassionate and engaged attitude to others. That’s why one of my favourite lines in all of Shakespeare is Edgar’s answer when challenged about the manner of person he is: ‘One who by the art of known and feeling sorrows am pregnant to good pity’.

On Tishah be’Av we sit on the ground and contemplate destruction, in order to rise and say ‘what can I do?’ It is a ‘what can I do?’ which extends from our immediate personal lives to embrace all Israel, the Jewish People, the city and country we live in, and life itself in every form we encounter.

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