This is Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbos before the great fast of Tisha B’Av—the 9th day of the Jewish month of Av. This is such a sad day for the Jewish people because every major tragedy that ever happened to us either occurred on this day or had its roots in something that occurred on this day. You’ve all seen the partial list that I have distributed of these tragedies—it’s staggering! And so, tonight we will begin to fast and recite the Book of Eycha, Lamentations, and Kinot memorial prayers to remember and to mourn. This kind of national mourning is essential for the Jewish soul for we can’t really understand who we are unless we remember and acknowledge the pain and scars that helped shape us.
A colleague from NY tells the story about a man whose wife was working in the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001. Fortunately she was on the 1st floor when the planes stuck and she was able to escape. Her husband said, “You know, I don’t think my wife ever got over that day. But I don’t think she wants to get over it, either. There’s something important about remembering, and about living with those difficult memories.”
That is what Tisha B’Av is all about: “There’s something important about remembering, and about living with difficult memories.” Have you heard people say sometimes when the Holocaust makes the news, “Get over it already; it was more than 70 years ago!?” Like the husband said, we don’t want to get over it. As discomforting as it may be to remember, there is something powerful about holding on to the terror and sorrow of moments like the Holocaust long after it has taken place. Such events shape who we are.
The 1st and 2nd major catastrophes we commemorate on Tisha B’Av are the destruction of both the 1st and 2nd Temples. Most of the liturgy for Tisha B’Av refers to them. What does it mean to remember the destruction of the Temples? Why bother today observing days that emphasize our powerlessness when we finally have a land of our own, and after 2,000 years have the ability to defend ourselves? Each year I find myself asking the same question: why do we need Tisha B’Av?
The Talmud teaches that the 1st Temple was destroyed on Tisha B’Av because the Jewish people were guilty of murder, idolatry and sexual immorality—the 3 cardinal sins and the 2nd Temple was destroyed on Tisha B’Av for the sin of sinat chinam, “causeless hatred” between Jews. But what about all the other tragedies—the Crusades, the Inquisition, the pogroms, etc.—what could we possibly have done to bring them about?
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, what does Tisha B’Av mean? No one in their right mind is willing to explain or rationalize why the Holocaust took place. It would seem that either Gd is cruel and uncaring, or cruelty happens and Gd is powerless to stop it. Both explanations are unacceptable.
Let me suggest that the purpose of Tisha B’Av is not to explain our suffering but to allow us to relive it, to re-experience it and to take it in each year so that the pain remains an immediate and powerful force in our lives. Like the woman from 9/11, we sense that we must not let go of the events we commemorate on Tisha B’Av—as painful as they are.
The key word of Tisha B’Av is not “why,” but “how.” It’s no accident that this is the opening word of the Book of Lamentations we read on Tisha B’Av. The Book begins: Eycha yashva vadad, usually translated, “Alas, lonely sits the city once great with people—she has become like a widow.” But the word eycha can also be translated as “how.” It’s both an exclamation and a question.
Faced with incompressible tragedy and sorrow our ancestors’ 1st reaction was to cry out: Eycha, “Alas!” “How can this be?” “What I have I done to deserve such suffering?” “Why?” But there are no easy answers to these questions, and I’m not certain that they were even asked as true questions. In the face of human suffering our questions are often a cry for help. When we ask “Why me?” we are not necessarily looking for an answer, but for a shoulder to lean on and a caring heart to turn to.
This 1st word in the Book of Lamentations teaches us that the question we must ask in the face of tragedy is not Lamah, “why,” but Eycha, “how?” How should I respond? How do I go on living in the face of such pain and suffering?”
In today’s Torah portion (Dev. 1:12) Moses also asks: Eycha, “How can I alone bear the trouble of the burdens and the bickering?” Here Moses gives expression to his frustration of dealing with a willful and stiff-necked people. We chanted this verse in the melody of Lamentations as a reminder of our sorrow.
And in the Haftorah which is also chanted in the mournful melody of Lamentations, the prophet Isaiah (1:21) says: Eycha, “Alas—how has the faithful city become a harlot—a city that was filled with and justice, but is now filled with murder?” Isaiah wonders how it is possible that the city of Jerusalem for which there was such a vision of hope, holiness and goodness could become so corrupt and degraded.
As Jews, we do not ask lama, “why,” but eycha, “how.” There are no explanations that will assuage our sorrow but there are paths that can lead us to light and wholeness. The response to sorrow and the response to tragedy is activism. We must search for new paths and new ways to deal with our pain and to heal the world of its sorrow.
For me this is what Tisha B’Av is all about. 1st it’s to remember and cry out Eycha! ALAS! And 2nd, it is to ask ourselves Eycha? “How?” How do we go on living in the face of such sorrow? What must I do in the face of tragedy?
And so, in the face of the destruction of the 2nd Temple, the rabbis became the architects of a whole new way of living Jewishly that focused on the home and the synagogue and house of study rather than the Temple in Jerusalem. In response to the Spanish Inquisition and exile, the Kabbalists developed a new concept of mysticism—Lurianic Kabbalah—which challenged the Jewish people to see themselves as active participants in bringing redemption to the world. After the Chmielnicki massacres, when it seemed the whole world outside was unsafe, Chassidut was born that taught us to focus on our inner joy. To each national tragedy the Jewish people have asked the question, “How now?”
Tisha B’Av, then, is a crucial day in the Jewish calendar. You don’t have to be religious to observe it. Rabbi Harold Kushner tells the story of a family he knew growing up in Brooklyn that was ardently secular and anti-religious. This was the kind of family that went out of its way to eat on Yom Kippur. They made a point, however, of fasting on Tisha B’Av. When Kushner asked why, they explained that they while they thought that ideas like sin and repentance were mumbo jumbo, they fully understood how important it is to remember the suffering and to grieve for the losses the Jewish people experienced.
There is a Chassidic saying that makes a similar point: “On Yom Kippur who wants to eat, and on Tisha B’Av who can eat?” When we think about the suffering of our people throughout history, beginning with the destruction of both Temples and continuing into our own times, how can one sit down and eat a meal on the anniversary of our catastrophes?
Today we need Tisha B’Av more than ever—to develop a sense of hope that we are not merely victims. We can and do make choices. Tradition teaches that the Messiah, will be born on Tisha B’Av. It’s a day that begins with grief. It then leads to reflection and remorse. But it ends with resolve and hope. May our fast tonight and tomorrow lift us from the depths of our frustrations with the course of our lives and help us to be inspired by those who came before us, who—in the face of tragedy—asked Eycha, “How?” and found the strength to live and to love and to create. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis