How the city sits alone, once full of people, now solitary as a widow. The city that was so esteemed among the nations is now like a laborer enslaved.
Driving through parts of central Massachusetts recently, I saw a contemporary version of the fall of a once-proud city. In once bustling industrial towns like Fitchburg or Lowell or North Adams, the shells of factories leave shadows of the past, amplifying the desolation of economic downfall.
I’ve visited other places in America abandoned by former commercial and industrial prosperity, places like Cumberland, Maryland or even Limestone, Maine, and seen the resulting poverty, isolation, and despair.
The verse cited above is centuries older than any of these cities. These lines, from the Book of Lamentations, are attributed to the prophet Jeremiah in the 6th century BCE. The city is Jerusalem, after the destruction of the Temple in 586.BCE. Her desolation is far worse than economic downfall alone; Lamentations (Eicha) describes the horrific aftermath of war, destruction, famine, and exile.
Lamentations is read once a year on the observance of Tisha B’Av, coming up this weekend. Most other holidays tell happier tales: the love poetry of Song of Songs (Shir Hashirim) for Pesach; the moving women’s novella, Ruth, for Shavuot; and of course, the bawdy story of Esther for Purim. Only Ecclesiastes (Kohelet), the scroll in the genre of Wisdom Literature that is read on Sukkot, is more serious; yet it contains memorably cheerful lines like “Go, eat your bread in gladness, and drink your wine in joy, for your action was long ago approved by God.” On Tisha B’Av there is no joy and no consolation.
Unlike any other day in the Jewish calendar, on Tisha B’Av we take time for sadness that arises from communal mourning. We recall the painful events of Jewish history, from biblical times to our own day. If Jewish suffering is not a source of your own personal grief, reading Lamentations gives a poignant and often graphic sketch of our people’s most tragic historic events.
I believe that Tisha B’Av contains an important message as we stare in the face of the unique fate of the Jewish people. Illuminating suffering engenders compassion. For one day a year, we can set aside the fun of being Jewish, the joy of eating and drinking together, and simply be with the suffering of our ancestors. Even for a few hours or minutes, here are some ways to learn about Tisha B’Av and incorporate its lessons into summer weekend plans.
Fasting: Tisha B’Av is a full day fast (like Yom Kippur), so it’s customary to finish dinner by sundown. The fast is intended to raise our awareness of Jewish suffering.
If you choose not to observe an entire day of fasting, you might consider a fast from sugar, from soft drinks, from whatever treats or luxuries you might normally enjoy.
Bring salmon and crackers, the new HBT assignment, for Family Table.
Write a check to a Jewish organization: give to a kosher food pantry, help Jewish victims of terror, or support Jewish life.
Reading: Lamentations is a good start. Pick up a Jewish history book from your shelf or from the temple library.
Read an on-line blog about Tisha B’Av. There are plenty of different ways to think about this day. See The Shalom Center’s teaching about global scorching; listen to this beautiful 5-minute teaching, “The Night Draws Lamentation,” about responding to suffering and loss; wrestle with Rabbi Daniel Greyber’s questions “Should We Transform Tisha B’Av from Fast to Feast?”
Singing: Not joyful or ecstatic singing, but somber, reflective music. Listen to versions of Psalm 137, “By the Waters of Babylon,” by Bob Marley, Don McLean, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Paul Robeson singing Dvorak’s composition, or the Hebrew “Al Naharot Bavel” by Israelis Gad Elbaz and Meydad Tasa, or Renaissance Italian Jewish composer Salomone Rossi.
Sandcastles: This is a special family-friendly observance for beach-goers. Build an elaborate sandcastle of ancient Jerusalem, or the First Temple. Enjoy it. Then destroy it. Talk about that with your kids.
Finally, the observance of Tisha B’Av ends with the hopeful image of the Mashiah, bringer of world peace, who the rabbis declared was born on Tisha B’Av amid the destruction. We shouldn’t wallow in our suffering. Out of despair, find hope. In the words of Rabbi Mark Soloway,
May we rebuild the broken Temple within our own hearts and live to see days of sadness transformed into days of joy.
Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, is observed on Saturday night and Sunday, July 25-26, beginning when Shabbat ends, at sunset.