Thoughts on Tisha b’Av

It’s not as if Tisha b’Av isn’t powerful — and powerfully odd — every year.

This year brings its own specific challenges. Last year we still were grappling with the formless, terrifying pandemic, with the still-puzzling because still-unpredictable dangers it posed, and the economic destruction and emotional disaster it brought with it. The plague of loneliness and meaninglessness did huge harm.

This year, the pandemic hasn’t ended, but its parameters are far more clear, so we can position ourselves within them. If we’ve gotten vaccinated — and unless we’re immunocompromised or under 12, there’s no good reason not to be vaccinated by now — we’re free to spend maskless time with family and friends, or for that matter with total strangers.

So now we can pay attention to the less expected outgrowth of the pandemic — the one that ties us even more closely to Tisha b’Av — the baseless hatred that it has unleashed. The rhetoric around the choice to get vaccinated is like the rhetoric around the choice to wear a mask, but it’s even more heated, and frankly even more deeply stupid.

Vaccines bring life. To refuse vaccinations is to open yourself up to premature death. There is nothing Jewish — or for that matter sane — about that.

Tisha b’Av also brings up the odd connection between disaster and beauty. Not that there is any beauty whatsoever to be found in recent disaster, but as those nightmares recede into the distant past, the hope and renewal that comes out of them often take over.

One of the reasons that Tisha b’Av is resonant for so many young Jews is that it falls during the summer, and Jewish sleepaway camps have been brilliant in the way they’ve attached beauty and meaning to it. A camp full of quiet teenagers, sitting on the ground, by the light of a quarter moon, maybe with a lake sparkling dimly behind them, is powerful. Eicha’s melody is haunting and it is beautiful; the horror of its words only adds to the dirge-lullaby.

It’s the memory of the combined strangeness and horror and beauty of that night at camp, those emotions and experiences inextricably woven together, that keep many former campers coming back to erev Tisha b’Av services, even if they no longer are regular shul-goers. It sits in a corner of your brain and re-activates every year.

The words of Eicha — Lamentations — are so very terrible. To a mother, the idea of eating your child is literally unimaginable, but we are confronted with that image every year. The depths of the degradation of the once-beautiful city are both emphasized and belied by the music of its song.

And then, slowly but unmistakably, there is hope. Life gets better. Healing is possible.

This year, Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter and Dr. Refael Medoff are going to talk about Rabbi Schacter’s father, Rabbi Herschel Schacter, on Tisha b’Av. Rabbi Schacter was one of the first Americans in Buchenwald after the Germans ran away. It was he who told the Jews there, the ones who survived until then, that they were free. It was a time unimaginable to all of us who have been blessed not to have been there. And even he, and more so even they, somehow managed to live past those days, and for many — not all, but many — life in fact did get better. Never unscarred, never again pure, but better.

We hope not only that covid-19 no longer holds dominion over us, that its tiny, deadly little spike droops and decays, but also that the baseless hatred it has not evoked but has helped to spread dies because it can find no hosts.

We hope that we all come out of this Tisha b’Av stronger, smarter, and kinder than we were before it began. 

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)