Three scenes from Tisha b'Av
July 30, 2009
Five people are sitting on the sanctuary floor; three are still in their chairs. The lights are dimmed: it's bright enough to see our prayerbooks and our little booklets containing Lamentations and several poems, but the room is noticeably dark. Outside, torrential rains pour down.
We take turns reading Lamentations aloud. At the beginning of each chapter, one person chants the first half-dozen verses according to the haunting tune only used on this one day of the year; then we go around the room, reading the poem in English.
Jackboots have marched in the Temple where barbarous hands have besmirched the sacred objects and fouled the holy places where fear and respect should have kept them away.
It's "jackboots" that gets to me. Intellectually I know that this chapter, like most of the poem, is an alphabetic acrostic and the translator needs to ensure that each verse begins with a new letter. Between the I verse and the K verse comes the J verse. But emotionally, that doesn't matter. The image of jackbooted thugs walking cavalierly into sacred places, kicking things over, trashing what is loved, will not leave me.
Our inheritance has been given over to strangers and our homes to aliens.
We are fatherless orphans. Or our mothers are grieving widows.
Landless now we must pay for our wood and our water...
We forage for food at our peril; we wander in wilderness fearing swordsmen at every step.
Our skin is hot as a stove with the fever of famine.
Women in Zion are raped, and Judah's virgins violated.
I think of the stories I've heard of those in Darfur who've been driven from their homes, their villages destroyed. Women who must walk a long distance to gather firewood for cooking, knowing that once they leave the cluster of refugees they are likely to be raped -- but what is their choice, when their hungry children must be fed? And, of course, the danger isn't only in collecting firewood; even in the camps, gunfire may be opened on the community mosque and when people run out in fear, the women are captured and raped in front of their families. (Source: 'No one to help them,' AmnestyUSA.org.)
I think of refugee camps around the world: Diyala, Iraq; Jaffna, Sri Lanka; Goz Amer, Chad; Yevlah, Azerbaijian; Dem Munzur, Sudan. (There is a world map featuring 700 refugee camps worldwide at millionsoulsaware.org.) I think of the Jewish family from Baku for whom I did a funeral last week, who told me that they lived in a "refugee community" between leaving one home and arriving here. I think of Dheisheh refugee camp, which I visited last summer.
Lamentations is powerful poetry. Reading it this year, I think: two thousand years ago, this was our story of death and destruction, famine and homelessness, murder and rape. Today it is someone else's story, and what are we doing to make it better? Wearing little green wristbands which proclaim "Not on my watch" the way the yellow ones proclaim "Livestrong"? Turning away from any sense of responsibility for Israel's policies which keep Palestinians in refugee camps? Choosing to see what is beautiful in the world (and there is much which is beautiful) instead of what is painful? But on Tisha b'Av we're called to face what hurts. And there is much which hurts.
We have read Lamentations, and a classical kinnah (poem of lament) called "An elegy for Jerusalem," and excerpts from Haim Nahman Bialik's "In the City of Slaughter," about the Kishinev massacre of 1903. (It is horrific. The "spattered blood and dried brains of the dead," and -- perhaps the worst images in the poem, for me -- "the cellars of the town... where seven heathen flung a woman down, / the daughter in the presence of her mother, / the mother in the presence of her daughter." Why are enmity and power always exercised on the bodies of women?)
The last poem in our booklet is by Cambodian poet Chath PierSath, who with part of his family fled the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and emigrated to the United States in 1981. The poem is called "A Letter to My Mother," and I am asked to read it aloud. Reading poetry is not difficult for me. I read poems all the time -- in prayer, at poetry readings. But reading this poem, at this moment, in this room, overwhelms me with tears.
Waiting is all I can do to lay flowers down on your grave,
to say good-bye, to embrace you one last time, and to
present myself to you and show you how I am, your son.
My voice breaks on the word "son." Maybe it's because the room is dark and the atmosphere is already one of mourning. Maybe it's because we've just finished reading Lamentations and Bialik's horrific poem about the pogrom in Kishinev and I am swimming in images of the past sufferings of my people. Maybe it's because I am pregnant and the thought of a son writing these words to his mother breaks my heart.
...I see you in the distance, limping home, half-crippled,
on an empty dirt road looking for your children.
The Khmer Rouge had taken them away.
Your boys were taken to Angka to do slave labor.
For five years there was no news of them.
You didn't know where your eldest son and his family were.
I was the only son left to watch you soliciting answers to
questions about a war you could not win.
Like other mothers, you tried to wage a battle against it
with the intention of saving what was left of your children.
I can picture his mother limping along a red dirt road, looking for her children who have been taken from her. I imagine five long years, minute by minute, of not knowing whether her children are dead or alive.
I had feared, Mother, when you became gaunt and frail, that you would leave me orphaned in that mad country with a two-year-old sister dying of starvation.
There was no rice on our plates, and you had become ill.
I went around begging and gathering whatever I could
to keep you breathing, praying, and calling the spirits.
No rice on their plates. Dying of starvation. I read an amazing book recently by a young African entrepreneur (in printer's galley form; it hasn't yet been released, though when it is, I will point to it) which included -- quite matter-of-factly -- a detailed account of the famine that this author and his family barely survived. I don't have words for how appalling it is. And this happens, routinely, around the world, even without the extenuating effects of war. But when this kind of suffering is humanity's fault, it is so much worse to contemplate, somehow. Because we could have done something about it, and we did not. Because we created the problem. Because it is on our hands.
One popular text to study on this day when most Torah study is prohibited (because Torah learning brings joy, and this is not a day for rejoicing) is this passage from the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Yoma 9b:
מקדש ראשון מפני מה חרב? מפני שלשה דברים שהיו בו: עבודה זרה, וגלוי עריות, ושפיכות דמים
אבל מקדש שני, שהיו עוסקין בתורה ובמצות וגמילות חסדים מפני מה חרב? מפני שהיתה בו שנאת חנם. ללמדך ששקולה שנאת חנם כנגד שלש עבירות: עבודה זרה, גלוי עריות, ושפיכות דמים
Why was the first Sanctuary destroyed? Because of three things which prevailed there: idolatry, incest/adultery, and bloodshed...
But why was the second Sanctuary destroyed, seeing that in its time they occupied themselves with Torah, the [observance of] mitzvot, and the practice of lovingkindness? Because therein prevailed hatred without cause. That teaches you that groundless hatred is considered as grave as the three sins of idolatry, incest/adultery, and bloodshed together.
"Hatred without cause" -- sinat chinam. This is generally understood to mean hatred between Jews and other Jews: not "us and them," but "us and us."
Read More Haredi protests over parking garage at Mystical Politics, about Haredim (ultraorthodox Jews) hurling stones and glass bottles at police while chanting "Shabbos" (in protest because a new parking garage which is open on Shabbat has been opened next to the Old City.) Later they burned garbage dumpsters all over the city.
Read Haredim protest abusive mother's arrest, in the JPost, a story about Haredi rioting to protest the secular arrest of an abusive mother in their community who nearly starved her son to death. Read The end of the Third Temple, an article by Nehemia Shtrasler about violence between Hareidi Jews and secular Israelis.
Read Yid with Lid's 9 Av post in which he argues that Obama's rise to power is a Tisha b'Av tragedy and that Obama wishes to destroy the state of Israel. I am a proud supporter of Obama and of JStreet; Yid With Lid's rhetoric is repugnant to me. I expect that my dearly-held beliefs are repugnant to him. I want to build bridges of understanding, but I don't know how to begin to reach out to someone whose beliefs are so foreign to me. I don't know how to communicate with the Jews who hate and fear the President whose stances and policies are so often near to my heart.
Never mind "us and them" -- it's obvious the world hasn't figured that one out yet. Not in Israel and Palestine, not in Somalia, not in Afghanistan, not in Darfur, not in Iraq, not in Pakistan, not in war zones around the world. But the Jewish community can't even resolve "us and us." The temple which remains rubble is klal Yisrael, our community around the world. Another Tisha b'Av is passing us by and we are still in pieces. How can we help but mourn?
Technorati tags: religion, Judaism, 9Av, poetry, Lamentations.