Tish’a B’Av—the ninth day of the month of Av, which this year falls on July 30— at the height of summer’s dry heat, is a long day of fasting and national mourning for the Jewish people world-over, commemorating the fiery losses of the Temples in Jerusalem and later calamities of Jewish history that have been attached to this date, including (but not limited to) the expulsions from England (12th century) and Spain (15th century). This year, we may feel invited to also express our collective grief for disruptions and losses inflicted by a pandemic that caught us unawares.
As we may lose track of time during intermittent quarantines, the seasonal rhythms of the Jewish calendar demand that we live with a consciousness that our days are numbered.
Ironically, the loss of the Temple that had been the locus of holiness in tribal Israel forced creative life-affirming responses to tragedy that transformed Jewish culture and practice. The five moving dirges that comprise the Biblical Book of Lamentations, heart-wrenching poems written in the wake of the first destruction, are chanted mournfully on Tish’a B’Av, seated on the floor or on low hard surfaces, in candlelit darkness. Yet, even as this liturgy has kept a Jewish focus on Jerusalem over the millennia, the Temples’ destructions mark an inflection point in the development of Judaism as we know it, a tribute to humanity’s capacity to pivot (perhaps the verb of the pandemic) and the resilience born of life-affirming creativity.
Tish’a B’Av bridges the spring and fall holidays, inaugurating the season of repentance. As we may lose track of time during intermittent quarantines, the seasonal rhythms of the Jewish calendar demand that we live with a consciousness that our days are numbered. Tish’a B’Av is preceded by three weeks of muted celebration, ending in nine days of more intense sadness when no meat is consumed, and (mirroring the seven weeks of counting the Omer between Passover and Shavuot harvests) is followed by seven weeks of introspection and penitence, culminating in Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, and the promised renewal of the Days of Awe. The three weeks leading up to Tish’a B’Av feature a series of three prophetic readings of rebuke, and the seven weeks following feature seven prophetic readings of consolation.
Rather than blame external enemies, Biblical theology blames the people’s sinfulness for the destructions of Tish’a B’Av. The rabbis specified that the sins that made God flee Jerusalem were sins of “sinat chinam,” baseless hatred, rudeness, shaming others, factionalism. These sins, too, resonate for us, when factionalism, internet shaming, and failures of cooperation and mutual care threaten humankind. The fasting that reminds us of our mortality, the collective mourning that reminds us that we are all in this together, the knowledge that devastation demands innovative solutions and cooperation are timely lessons.
These sins … resonate for us, when factionalism, internet shaming, and failures of cooperation and mutual care threaten humankind.
The pandemic seemed to some of us a forced wake-up call, a shofar blast, a universal slow down, the earth’s plea to cleanse the planet. City streets were eerily emptied: “Alas! Lonely sits the city once great with people…” (Lamentations 1:1).
My personal grief overlays the mourning of my people on Tish’a B’Av. My father, whose parents, along with three of his siblings were murdered in the Holocaust, and who was himself liberated from Buchenwald, lived joyfully and intensely, with boundless generosity, though he carried the weight of Jewish losses on his shoulders. Fittingly, he died on Tish’a B’Av (in 2004). On this yahrzeit (anniversary of death) of Rudy Lefkovitz, I honor his inspirational, conscientious efforts to sustain life despite unbearable loss, and hope that we see our way clear to paths of greater justice.