Ask the question, take the action

As the Jewish community observes the doleful three weeks culminating in the fast of Tisha B’Av, we focus our attention on our long history of loss, destruction, and displacement.

Tisha B’Av recalls the Babylonians’ destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians on the ninth day of Av in 586 BCE and by Rome on the same day in 70 CE. Other catastrophes associated more or less precisely with this date include the beginning of the First Crusade in 1096; the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290, from France in 1306, and from Spain in 1492; the Nazi party’s final approval of the “Final Solution” in 1941, and the mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka in 1942.

The liturgical centerpiece of this day of mourning is the chanting of the biblical book of Lamentations. Lamentations is known in Hebrew as “Eicha” — meaning “Why?” or “How?” or “How Could It Possibly Be?” — a term that is repeated throughout the book. While “Eicha” is the very first word in Lamentations, the choice of title is of far deeper significance.

Eicha is the only book of the Bible with a title in the form of a question. The historic cataclysm commemorated by Eicha left the Jewish people displaced, distraught, and disoriented. We were, necessarily, left questioning — questioning our faith, questioning our fate, and wondering about our future prospects and options. What will we do now, without a Temple, without national sovereignty, without the spiritual and national life to which we have grown accustomed and by which we have for so long defined ourselves?

Lamentations/Eicha inaugurated a long history of literary works that take questions as their titles, and that thereby give voice to human uncertainty in times of personal or national upheaval, to the deep darkness with which people and peoples are confronted, unbidden and often without warning.

Spencer Johnson, who died on July 3, was the author of the wildly popular “Who Moved My Cheese?” Spencer’s book, with its aptly interrogative title, offers the reader a parable about how to cope with change, which often is so unwanted and disruptive.

The parable tells of two mice, Scurry and Sniff, who live in a maze with two mouse-sized “little people,” Hem and Haw. Life is good and manageable for the four denizens of the maze, until their reliable food source — an ample supply of cheese — is diminished and then removed. Scurry and Sniff quickly move on in search of a new routine, a new life, a new source of sustenance and fulfillment, while Hem and Haw, true to their names, merely bewail the unfairness of their lot and their loss. Tragically indecisive and stubbornly unwilling and afraid to adapt, they go hungry.

Johnson’s wise if simple parable comprises a principle with many applications. “What you are afraid of is never as bad as what you imagine,” he writes. “Life moves on and so should we.”

“It is safer to search in the maze than to remain in a cheeseless situation,” he writes. And, perhaps most applicable to Tisha B’Av: “If you do not change, you can become extinct.”

Questioning titles have found their way into the humor genre. To wit: Erma Bombeck’s “If life is a bowl of cherries, what am I doing in the pits?” Bombeck’s response to challenges and frustrations and everyday indignities is laughter.

Horace McCoy’s 1935 novel, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?,” is a profoundly dark illustration of the interrogative titular tradition. Robert Syverten has confessed to murder. He shot his suicidal dance marathon partner, Gloria Beatty, who, in existential despair, handed him a pistol and asked him to take her life. The novel is the story of Robert’s relationship with his victim, with intermittent excerpts from the presiding judge’s sentencing statement. The judge’s words appear in increasingly large print, until their very conclusion. His closing is printed in diminutive letters: “And may God have mercy on your soul.”

The printer’s font seems to suggest that even as violence and mayhem intensify, divine mercy remains in short supply.

A similarly dark work (and particularly apt Tisha B’Av reading) takes as its questioning title the famous statement of the rabbinic sage Hillel: “If Not Now, Then When,” by Primo Levi. (In Levi’s original Italian, it is “Se non ora, quando?”)

The disturbing story, suggested by historic events, traces the activities of a group of Jewish partisans who are fighting, sabotaging the Nazi war effort, and dreaming of settling in the land of Israel and participating in building the new Jewish state. The protagonist, Mendel Nachmanovich Dajcher, tellingly was a watchmaker before the war. That is a profession requiring discipline and exacting precision, and reflects the predictability of time and our ability to assert control over our lives, and to impose order on events. His clockwork existence is obliterated, however. While he is serving in the Red Army, Mendel’s shtetl — including his wife — are massacred. He is further disoriented by the decimation and loss of his regiment, occasioning his flight and involvement with the partisans. Mendel seizes control of his upended life and fights for meaning and existence and vindication. Se non ora, quando? If someone does not fight for a way to survive and to act meaningfully under such dire conditions, then when would he?

Levi, an Auschwitz survivor and former partisan, famously was motivated by loss and tragedy to identify a new life’s course. He was a gifted chemist — his collection of short stories, “The Periodic Table,” was deemed “the best science book ever” by Britain’s Royal Institution — and is remembered for his poetic and sensitive treatment of among the darkest moments in human (and certainly Jewish) history.

Judy Blume’s 1970 young adult novel, “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret,” is far lighter fare, but no less focused on personal uncertainty, questioning, and the search for meaning, identity, and direction. The young protagonist and title character is forced to contend simultaneously with the approach of puberty and the personal and spiritual implications of her parents’ intermarriage. Margaret searches for a spiritual home and lifestyle, visiting a variety of churches, and becoming disillusioned with her mother’s Christianity as well as her father’s Judaism — owing, to a great extent, to the impact of what she perceives to be unwelcome and coercive grandparental measures. For a time she despairs theologically and abandons her spiritual quest, but ultimately establishes a connection to the Divine: “I know you’re there, God … Thank you, God. Thanks an awful lot …”

Nikolai Popov’s beautifully illustrated, wordless book, “Why?” (first published in Salzburg as “Warum?’) is aimed, at least ostensibly, at younger children. Through detailed watercolors, Popov conveys a tale of an idyllic habitat suddenly beset by a cycle of jealousy, conflict, aggression, and retaliation. The futility of war and the destruction wrought by violence are given expression through the experiences of a frog defending its lily against the incursions of a belligerent mouse. Boots and other footwear become the vehicles of war on the battlefield that emerges, as the diminutive combatants “fill the shoes” of the human antagonists to whom they allude. The title of the morality tale alone is sufficient to convey its pained and probing message: Why? Warum?

There are, of course exceptions, but the use of the interrogative in the title of a literary work has come to suggest the human encounter with adversity, the disorientation it engenders, and the decision-making it necessitates. In Jewish tradition, however, questioning is a uniquely welcome and sacred spiritual response.

Contemporary talmudist Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, describing the three-million-word opus he has made his life’s work, says: “It is, perhaps, the only sacred book in all of world culture that not only permits, but even encourages the student to question it.” Perhaps some of this positive spirit, therefore, should inform our observance of Tisha B’Av, with the interrogative “Eicha” so firmly at its core. After all, though we mourn the destruction of ancient Jerusalem, that holy city is now the vibrant, bustling capital of a free, democratic, sovereign Jewish state Furthermore, our American “exile” is an experience of religious freedom, civil enfranchisement, and social acceptance and inclusion unprecedented in Jewish history.

The cognitive dissonance necessarily evoked by twenty-first century Tisha B’Av mourning — particularly in the fuller context of the lugubrious Three Weeks preceding that fast — calls to mind yet another telling title, Dr. Seuss’ “Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?” Perhaps together with our Tishah B’Av dirges and lamentations, and our pained cries of “Eicha?!” — “How could it possibly be?” — and as his grateful readers mourn the passing of Spencer Johnson, we would do well to reflect upon (if not publicly to intone) the wisdom of Theodor Seuss Geisel:

“When you think things are bad, when you feel sour and blue, when you start to get mad … you should do what I do!

“Just tell yourself, Duckie, you’re really quite lucky! Some people are much more … oh, ever so much more … oh muchly much-much more unlucky than you!”

About the Author
Joseph Prouser is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes.
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