November 21, 2018

For These Things, I Do Weep

This coming week begins “the nine days,” the period of intense mourning leading up to Tisha B’av, the fast of Av, which takes place on the following Thursday, July 18.

It is said that throughout history, during the nine days (and the current “three weeks” between the fast of the 17th of Tammuz until Tisha B’av), terrible events befell the Jewish people. On the 17th of Tammuz, the beginning of the “three weeks,” for example, Moses smashed the tablets because he discovered Israel worshipping the Golden Calf; on that day years later, the walls of Jerusalem were breached, first by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C.E. and then again by Titus in 70 C.E., resulting in the destruction of the First and Second Temples on Tisha B’av. Other tragedies befell the Jewish people on Tisha B’av: The nation was sentenced to wander the desert for 40 years because of the spies’ negative report on Israel; and the city of Beitar was conquered and destroyed by the Romans, an event considered “as great a tragedy as the destruction of the Temple,” according to commentators.

Tragic events also occurred in more modern times on Tisha B’av: In 1492 the Jews of Spain had to convert, leave the country or face torture; World War I also began on Tisha B’av.

For this reason, during the nine days, it is customary not to take unnecessary risks, such as swimming or boating, and as a symbol of mourning, cutting hair, shaving, eating meat, drinking wine, listening to music and other festive actions are forbidden as well.

I have spent most of my childhood summers in camp hearing terrible stories of what happened to people who took risks throughout the nine days, and still today, it is hard for me to shake the “Friday the 13th” foreboding feeling that something terrible will happen during this period.

It could be anything — another suicide bombing, a failed military operation, a synagogue torched, a guy lighting his shoe on fire. Even the horrors unnamed now seem possible, particularly after reading last month’s New York Times Magazine article “Nuclear Nightmare” laying out the scenarios for nuclear attacks.

Looking at the state of affairs today, many would agree that this is the worst period in the Jews’ recent history, and America’s as well. Certainly, during my lifetime, it seems that we are in the “nine days” of our times. Anti-Semitism is spreading like a virus in Europe, anti-Israel sentiments are growing in America (if college campuses are any indication as noted on the story on page 11), the Middle East situation is deteriorating with no real end in sight and democracy is seemingly losing the battle throughout the world. It is hard to shake an apocalyptic apprehension that things are going to get a whole lot worse before they get better.

Al eileh, ani bochiya. “For these things, I do weep” (1:16) laments the verse in Eichah (the book of Lamentations), which we read on Tisha B’av while sitting on the floor, or, as we used to do in camp, marching somberly down to the lake, guided by torchlight, to hear the sad, plaintive melody of the book’s description of the destruction of Jerusalem:

Eichah yashvah badad
ha’ir rabati am haytah k’almanah
rabati bagoyim sarati ba’medinot
hayta lamas.

“How lonely sits the city, one so full of people, one great among nations has become like a widow, one’s princess among states has become like a vassal [slave].” (1:1)

Even if you don’t believe, it is hard to deny the aptness of the verses:

Bacho tivkeh balaylah
v’dimatah al lechiah
ayn lah menachem mikol ohavehah
kol re’ehah bagdu bah
hayu lah le’oyvim.

“Bitterly she [Jerusalem] weeps in the night, tears upon her cheeks, she has no one to comfort her out of all her friends, all her friends have betrayed her and become her foes.” (1:2)

As a people — and we still are a people, no matter how fractious and disparate we have become — it seems that at times like these, we will gather, fast, and pray, collectively reciting the last verse of Lamentations (which is not, as my father jokes, is, “The fast will be over at 9:15,”) but the poignant prayer:

Hashiveynu hashem eilecha v’nashuva chadesh yameinu kikedem.

Bring us back to you, Hashem, and we shall return; renew our days as of old. (5:21)

Here’s the good news: The Talmud states that after the coming of the Messiah, during the period of redemption, Tisha B’av, once a day of intense mourning, will be a day of intense celebration and joy, the happiest in the Jewish calendar because the Temple will be restored. With the state of Israel’s creation and fruition, some have said that that era is now, and Tisha B’av should already be made a day of celebration. Yet given the current situation in Israel, that belief seems premature.

But perhaps one day soon it will be so, for even though we have many things upon which to weep, we pray for redemption:

“Bring us back to you, Hashem, and we shall return; renew our days as of old. ”