Daniel B. Schwartz

Oh God Hear ME Cry

Tisha b’Av is supposed to be the saddest day in the Jewish calendar.  It commemorates the destruction of ancient Jerusalem and the Temples, the loss of our national independence, events that are the prologue to a long and sad history of persecution and oppression.  Quite literally, according to our tradition, had we not brought upon ourselves Divine wrath deserving of the destruction of Jerusalem in the first century AD, we would have never suffered the iniquities we have endured throughout history.

This idea, that the Ninth of Av was the start of all our sufferings, is reflected in the liturgy of Tisha b’Av morning.  After the Torah reading, we sit on the floor in a sign of mourning, and begin the recitation of poetic dirges.  Traditionally, we are expected to recite them until mid-day, if not the entire day.  Those elegies are thematic.  They begin with mourning the Temple and Jerusalem.  But they segue into bemoaning the difficulties and humiliations of exile, and from there they mark the various tragic atrocities we’ve encountered.  Ashkenazim bewail the crusades, the decimation of the great Ashkenazi Kehillot of Spier, Worms and Mainz.  We recount the tragic intellectual loss when twenty- four cartloads full of Talmudic manuscripts were burned in Paris.  English Jews recite a Kinah in memory of the massacre at York in 1190.  Polish and Lithuanian Jews recite one over the horrors of the Chmielnicki Massacres of 1648–1649.  We all say a tearful Kinah or two to commemorate the Holocaust.  I’m not Sephardic, and I’m not very familiar with Sephardic liturgy.  But I have read that Sephardim recite Kinnot over the Spanish Inquisition.

A common feature of all the Kinnot I’ve ever read is that they are the cries of a community.  We collectively weep over the loss of national patrimony; over the humiliations we have suffered through the centuries.  For Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik notes this characteristic and suggests that Tisha b’Bav became THE day in the Jewish calendar for us to cry out in complaint to G-d and protest all the bad that has happened to us.  Every other day, we humbly beg G-d to be gracious to us.  But on the 9th of Av, we also vent our dissatisfaction with how He has treated us.

But what about the individual?  Not every tragedy is a group event.  The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and all the others are all chock full of individual stories of horror and suffering.  My generation is well aware of the tortures visited upon those trapped in the destruction of European Jewry.  Many of us were exposed to those stories firsthand, hearing them retold by the survivors themselves.  When does the solitary suffering of the individual ever get noticed in our liturgy?

It can be argued that individual suffering and the religious crisis it generates is private; it is a matter to be hashed between the victim and G-d, in the deep recesses of his (maybe also His?) soul.  But the way Jews mourn, demonstrates how wrong that notion is.  Funerals, Shiva, Shloshim commemorations, placing of headstones, the Yahrzeit are all private acts of mourning, that have been ritualized so as to occur within the embrace of the community.  Yes, the mourner may feel existentially alone.  But s/he in fact never is truly alone.

But Jewish mourning is built around the concept of tzidduk hadin, the vindication of Divine Will.  It is not a time that we cry out in protest.  So again, when is the individual given the opportunity to protest his suffering to G-d, surrounded by a community that understands the need to both vilify He who has been so unfair to the one suffering, and feel that validation from the group?  Why must we stand up to G-d and “damn” Him for what has happened to us, if we will ever challenge Him to justify Himself, alone?

I don’t know why our traditional observances of Tisha b’Av never made room for the individual to cry out from within the midst of the community of mourners.  But maybe it is time to create that space.  So many of us, disaffected and alienated from Judaism or not, are angry with G-d in Heaven.  If we are to be brutally honest, He’s not been kind to all of us.  While there may be purpose to all that He does, it is not necessarily always to everyone’s benefit.  People suffer.  And it seems they suffer for no good reason.  It hurts.  It offends.  It enrages.  For many if they were not seething at G-d, they would have no relationship with Him at all.

As the Yiddish saying goes “If G-d lived on Earth, people would break His windows.”  And it’s high time the individuals, all us really, were given a liturgic voice to yell out, to protest and decry the iniquities He’s visited on each of us.  Rabbi Soloveitchik posited that Tisha b’Av is the day for us to yell “why G-d have You done all this to us?!”  It’s time for us to be able to also scream “Why G-d did You do all this to me?!?!”  G-d needs to be made to weep and feel ashamed not just for destroying the great Jewish centers of Mainz and Regensburg and Castille and Toledo, but also for the child whose life was irreparably destroyed when He deprived her of a parent, for the parent who saw G-d kill his child, for the honest guy who just can’t ever get a break in life and who’s spirit has been broken by the struggle.  They all deserve a vocabulary and a liturgy by which each can bring their individual grievance before He who harmed them all and do so from with the support of an empathic community.  Both G-d’s justice and His compassion require this.

The prayers on Tisha b’Av morning generally end with the Kinah Eli Tzion, which admonishes us to mourn Zion like a woman screaming out with pains of childbirth.  When the prayers end, the child is still unborn; the woman still screams in pain.  It’s time for our liturgy to force G-d to hear her, to hear each of us.

ומחה ה’ יהוה דמעה מעל כל פנים וחרפת עמו יסיר מעל כל הארץ

About the Author
Daniel Schwarz, an attorney with offices in Jerusalem, Efrat and Rehovot, made Aliyah from Rockland County, New York in 2016. He's also an avocational chazzan.
Related Topics
Related Posts