Tisha B’Av’s Lesson For Honoring Pandemic Losses

The Biblical book of Lamentations, chanted on Tisha B’Av begins with the words, “Aicha yashvah badad,” “Alas! lonely sits the city.” Thus begins an annual ritual outpouring of grief, which, like so many ancient Jewish rituals, elicits complex and often contradictory feelings from participants. One such feeling is the incongruity of mourning and weeping over a destroyed Jerusalem in an era of a thriving, rebuilt city. The ritual endures, however, probably in part because of the tendency of Jewish observance to repurpose inherited practices. Close readers of Jewish text also know that we often find buried meanings when we observe rituals whose proximate cause seems obscure.

This year, the observance of Tisha B’Av, in this liminal, second pandemic summer, takes on a renewed significance. Most of the world continues to suffer the consequences of the pandemic and for many Jews around the world, personal pandemic losses linger. A shadow of vast and insufficiently acknowledged grief hangs over the world, certainly over the United States. Some important efforts to acknowledge that grief have been made. The memorial to COVID-19 victims at the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool as part of President Biden’s inauguration in January offered the first opportunity for meaningful catharsis and empathy for the many who mourn. But it is troubling how the magnitude of the pandemic’s losses receives so little public expression beyond the daily death and infection counts. We could find many explanations to justify the incongruity of such monumental human events and so little public memorialization, not the least of which is that we are still very much in the middle of the pandemic.  Nonetheless, there is something eerily callous about the lacunae in the public narrative of pandemic losses, especially as so many mourners stagger among us, trying to get their bearings.

Judaism traditionally understands (B. Yoma 9a) that baseless hatred, sinat hinam was the cause the destruction of the Temple. According to the traditional understanding, the loneliness and desolation we reenact by the mournful chanting of Lamentations was the result of the Temple, and Jerusalem’s, destruction. But this formula is just as easily inverted. It is true that baseless hatred destroys, leaving in its wake the desolation that the Book of Lamentations describes. But it is equally true that alienation not necessarily borne of hatred, but also of other causes, such as feelings of grief, humiliation or abandonment can in and of itself be a catalyst for further devastation. The fabric of society, as idealized and symbolized in ancient times by the Temple, relies upon human caring translated into a compassionate society and compassionate institutions. Where callousness prevails in people’s regard for one another’s suffering, not only is suffering magnified, but the ability to maintain pro-social institutions is threatened.

The Talmudic parable (b.Gittin 55b) which is brought to explain the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE cautions that there are other, potentially volatile sequalae of alienation. According to the Talmudic narrative, the proximate instigation for Rome’s destruction of the Temple was promulgated by a man called Bar Kamtza. Publicly expelled from a banquet to which he was mistakenly invited, even after begging to stay and offering to pay for the banquet if he were allowed to stay, he retaliates against the whole Jewish community by telling the Romans that their official Temple sacrifices are being handled disrespectfully. Rome then retaliates against the Jews by destroying the Temple. The humiliation inflicted by the host out of his lingering anger towards Bar Kamtza is the “sinat himam” or “baseless hatred” to which the ultimate destruction is usually attributed.

But the Talmudic text teaches otherwise. In b.Gittin 55b, the Talmud specifies that it was not the lavish public repudiation by his host that brought Bar Kamtza to the Romans, but rather the indifference of the other guests, whom he had thought were his friends and colleagues, who “sat and did not protest, thus showing they were content [with the actions of the host].”*  Thus, it was neither the host’s anger nor the public humiliation of being expelled from the celebration that pushed Bar Kamtza over the edge. Rather he could not bear the indifference to his feelings of the people who sat at every table — who represented leaders of a community of which he thought he was a part — who did not even look up from their feasting while he was being cast out. With its leaders failing to live up to the religious and social ideals of Judaism, the society was destroyed under the weight of their indifference.

Now, with travel booming and in-person events opening up, this is indeed a summer of well-deserved feasting and deferred celebration for many. This is positive overall, and Judaism holds that life is for the living and is meant to be enjoyed. But Judaism also teaches that we can simultaneously take with us even into these enjoyable and life-affirming experiences a deep appreciation of other people’s individual suffering, and the losses of the community. The destruction of the Temple is commemorated not only by the mournful observance of Tisha B’Av, but also by the breaking of the glass by a joyous bride and groom under the chuppah. Whether in our communities, or in distant corners of the world, the painful losses that have left so many feeling alienated and abandoned still demand our caring attention.

*Translation based on Sefaria.

About the Author
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld is CEO emerita of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), the association of the world’s Conservative movement rabbis and founder of Leading Ethics, which helps organizations grow by building trust. She also served on the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
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