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As if the tragedy were happening today

Our present experience of quarantine and isolation can help us connect with the timeless sorrow for a destroyed Jerusalem
Tisha B'Av at the Western Wall, Jerusalem, June 29, 2020. (Screenshot)
Tisha B'Av at the Western Wall, Jerusalem, June 29, 2020. (Screenshot)

Once, on the afternoon prior to Tisha B’Av, a teenager called her rabbi, “Rabbi, I know tonight is Tisha B’Av, but tonight my favorite baseball team is in the playoffs. I’m a life-long sports fan, Rabbi, I’ve got to watch the game on TV!”

The rabbi smiled, “That is not a problem,” he answered. “What do you think DVRs and recordings are for?”

The teenager’s eyes lit up. “Wow — that’s great, Rabbi! You mean I can record Tisha B’Av?!”

In the era of Zoom recordings, it might be tempting to “record” Tisha B’Av and watch it when more convenient. However, as our third kinah in the traditional collection of Tisha B’Av elegies states, “On this night my children weep and wail, on this night the Temple was destroyed.” It is on this date of Tisha B’Av itself that we are asked to cry out, as we recount Tisha B’Av’s historic national calamities.

This year, however, there are two factors that make this directive more challenging. First, many of us are about to experience Tisha B’Av apart and alone. Without the community, how can we access that same deep sense of collective national grief? Further, in a year when we are surrounded by swirling winds of sorrow and despair, is it really possible to put aside our current tragedy and attain a level of individual weeping for events that happened so long ago?

As we will see, embedded in the design of the Jewish practice leading up to Tisha B’Av and woven into the fabric of biblical passages that recount Tisha B’Av’s tragedies, our sages and prophets give us tools that make the collective pain of Tisha B’Av feel personal, as if the destruction was happening to us today. Focusing on these tools can help provoke the raw and powerful emotional mourning that we seek.

Jewish Practice

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in his essay, “Bein Hametzarim – Avelut Yeshena and Avelut Chadasha – Historical and Individual Mourning,” demonstrates how Jewish practice helps us attain a deeply personal experience of collective mourning on Tisha B’Av by comparing the laws of individual mourning after the death of a close relative to the laws of mourning leading up to Tisha B’Av. He shows that these laws are purposefully designed to largely be the inverse of one another.

Rabbi Soloveitchik first shows that Jewish law encourages the natural expression of the crushing, overpowering grief one often feels after the loss of a beloved, close relative. The intense mourning prohibitions immediately after this death, including the directive to tear one’s clothes and not obey other positive commandments, help the mourner release very raw emotions of anguish and dark despair.

As time passes and grief, though still present, naturally recedes, and allows other modes of consciousness to enter, Jewish law helps the mourner to re-enter the world by gradually lifting prohibitions of mourning. Prohibitions are progressively removed as the mourner passes from the state of onen (pre-burial of a close relative) to the seven days of shiva, to the 30 days of shloshim, to (for those who lost a parent), the additional 11 months of avel.

Tisha B’Av, however, is radically different. Here, we are asked to mourn a collective national tragedy without any immediate loss to spiral us into the cycles of grief. Here, we need Jewish law, not to aid us in re-entering the world after tragedy, but to push us to collectively leave our present to re-discover our tragic past. Jewish law, therefore, progressively adds prohibitions of mourning as we approach Tisha B’Av to get us into this mindset.

Specifically, Rabbi Soloveitchik shows that the mourning practices we first observe at the start of the nine days before Tisha B’av are very similar to the mourning practices a child observes in his or her last 11 months of avel. As Tisha B’Av draws closer and we enter the week of Tisha B’Av, our mourning practices increase and look similar to the mourning individuals observe during the 30 days of shloshim. Finally, when we arrive at Tisha B’Av itself, our practices are the most restrictive, and most similar to the earliest days of individual mourning — those of the first seven days of shiva. Through this progressive increase in mourning practices as we get closer on the calendar to Tisha B’Av, Jewish law helps us incrementally attain what Rabbi Soloveitchik calls unitive time consciousness, a level of awareness of past national tragedy that increasingly feels to us as if the tragedy were happening today.

Biblical Texts

An exploration of the Book of Jeremiah, which we read excerpts of on Sabbaths leading up to Tisha B’Av, and of the Book of Lamentations, which we read on Tisha B’Av itself, shows that, here too, we are given tools to awaken a collective, unitive time consciousness. Specifically, the metaphors Jeremiah employs to describe Israel’s betrayal of God and God’s destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, help us feel that these ancient tragedies are occurring to us personally, today.

In the book of Jeremiah, the eponymous prophet likens God’s relationship with Israel to that between a man and a woman, and a parent and child. God first recounts Israel as a bride, “I accounted to your favor, the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride” (2:1). God admonishes Israel that a bride would never forget her treasured adornments, yet Israel, forgot God (2:32). God rebukes Israel that they are like a child when they turn to idolatry as they say, “to wood, ‘you are my father,’ to stone, ‘you gave birth to me.’” These metaphors of personal familial relationships, help the Israelites, and by extension, us, the readers, imagine that we are the perfidious, deceitful bride that forgot God, our spouse; we are the imprudent child that forgot God, our parent.

The relational, predominantly metaphors of female imagery, are then strewn throughout the text and when put together reveal a life story. In the third chapter of Jeremiah, we are a couple getting a divorce from God, in chapter four, we are pregnant, presumably out of wedlock, with the child of one of the suitors we chased, instead of staying with God. Jeremiah then describes our pain as the pain of giving birth to a first-born. He recounts how our skirts are unclean, and finally likens us to distraught widows.

In Lamentations, these metaphors reappear, this time describing our once splendid Jerusalem, as a city of squalor, loneliness, and destruction. The images of the beautiful bride return, though here she loses her treasures. The images of the skirts, and the profound images of widowhood return as well. In heart-wrenching reverse of the image in Jeremiah of the child who abandons his parent, in Lamentations, we read repeatedly of the mother who abandons her child.

Through these metaphors we feel as if the loss of the relationship with God that occurred over 2,000 years ago, is a mixture of two of the most wrenching losses we can suffer – that of a beloved spouse, or that of a parent. The suffering of Jerusalem is the suffering of the widow we see on the streets, who cannot care for her children.

This year after so many months of quarantine and isolation, there are passages from Lamentations that provoke further resonance as they describe, for example, a once-filled busy city, Jerusalem, now empty: “Eicha! Yashva badad Ha’ir, ravti am” “Alas! Lonely sits the city once great with people” (Lamentations 1:1). These and other images and themes can help us channel our present grief into despair for the past. In this way, our current situation is not an obstacle, but rather a way into the timeless tragedy of a Jerusalem destroyed.

As we prepare in 2020 for one of the loneliest Tisha B’Avs of our lifetime, perhaps we can find comfort in knowing that our sages and our prophets did not want us to experience Tisha B’Av alone. They are sitting right beside us supplying us with the practices and texts we need to attain a deep level of personal mourning for collective tragedies. They are helping us achieve that unitive time consciousness, where we can experience the merging of our present moment with our historic, collective, national past.

And as we sit this year alone on Tisha B’Av and contemplate how Jews all over the world are performing these very same acts of mourning and reading these same powerful prophetic texts, perhaps we can even achieve unitive space consciousness, the experience of knowing that though we may be physically apart, our collective acts, focus and consciousness, bring us spiritually closer together.

About the Author
Jennifer Raskas is the Washington, DC, manager for the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. She speaks, writes and teaches classes widely on Hebrew literary approaches to readings in Tanakh. She is also a trained facilitator through Resetting the Table, which brings communities together for brave conversations across difference. Jennifer received her Bachelor of Arts from Columbia University and her Masters in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
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