The process of grief follows its own rules: shock and numbness, grief and anger, sadness and resignation and back again to incredulity and grief. We face our losses in different ways, both according to our temper and the triggers that unconsciously give expression to our heartache and sorrow. Such pain and anguish are unprescribed, unanticipated; they catch us unawares, we lose our foothold.
These are our private burdens that we carry deep within our heart – the losses of family members or friends, recent or in the more distant past, those who died peacefully in old age, and those who had another song within them, lives cut down in the midst of their days. Their memory is with us daily and in the moments of ritual remembrance at home or in the synagogue – lighting a candle or reciting Kaddish – the mourners’ prayer – on the anniversary of a loved one’s death. Such rituals may help us move from our sorrow to the nurture of enduring love, from pain to gratitude and a sense that all life is part of a natural cycle – ‘our days are as grass, we blossom like a flower in the field, the wind passes over it and it is no more.’
But there are, too, the burdens and sorrows we bear as the Jewish people, with days of remembrance, fasting and lamentation embedded into the liturgical calendar. And the darkest part of the Jewish year comes at the brightest and hottest time of the summer in late July or August, in fact at this very moment in time.
Oblivious to the carefree weeks of the summer holidays, the long days and short nights, in the northern hemisphere at least, we are burdened with three weeks of mourning, known simply as the ‘Three Weeks.’ They begin on the 17th day of the month of Tammuz and culminate with the fast of Av, known simply as Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av. The first of these dates commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, the 9th Av marks the destruction of both First and Second Temples in Jerusalem.
The three Sabbaths that occur between the 17th Tammuz and the 9th Av, which falls tomorrow night in our Hebrew calendar, are distinguished by three prophetic readings (Haftarot), two from Jeremiah and the first chapter of Isaiah – each one of them passages of admonition and rebuke addressed to a sinful people. Isaiah 1 gives its name to the Sabbath before Tisha B’Av, Shabbat Chazon – the Sabbath of vision. Although Isaiah lived a hundred years or more before the destruction of the First Temple, this chapter serves as a prelude to the reading of the Book of Lamentations, associated with and read on Tisha B’Av, the tone and imagery preparing us for the most mournful day in the Jewish calendar, a day of fasting, lamentation and mourning. Isaiah, like the poet of Lamentations, contemplates in elegiac form something similar to the suffering and dislocation that occurred after the destruction of the Temple and the exile that followed.
Late on the eve of Tisha B’Av, as the sun begins to set, congregations gather in the synagogue to sit on low stools or on the ground, to listen to the Book of Lamentations, chanted in a mournful tone, its trope like a woman keening over and over again. This is the book, says Shaye Cohen, that ‘is the eternal lament for all Jewish catastrophes, past, present and future.’
And so Tisha B’Av is commemorated, not only for the catastrophe of the destruction of the First Temples in Jerusalem and the exile of the people from their land in 586 BCE, but also the Second Temple in 70 CE, and countless other tragedies that have beset the Jewish people from the massacres of whole communities during the Crusades, to the murder of Jews who were held responsible for the Black Death in the 14th century, the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290 and from Spain in 1492, pogroms in Poland, Ukraine and Russia and the murder of six million Jews during the Shoah.
At the height of the summer, when we should be throwing off the fetters of our work and thinking of our holidays, the Jewish people enter a cycle of sorrow and remembrance of past calamities. In more recent liturgies, we have commemorated not only our own tragedies, but more universally, the August nuclear decimation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Zalman Schachter- Shalomi expresses the obligation of global remembrance in this way: ‘At a time when the sun is burning hot, we must mark Hiroshima Day, not retreat into a bleak vision of our place in the world. The teshuvah (repentance) for the Three Weeks is to examine how we have distorted the particular. In the midst of remembering our history, we must reclaim as well our role as planetary citizens’ (Jewish Holidays, Michael Strassfeld, p. 86).
Tisha B’Av’s strict mourning practices restrict even the study of Jewish texts – considered a joyous practice – apart from the Book of Job, parts of Jeremiah that describe the destruction of the Temple and the sections of the Talmud that deal with the destruction. The evening service is lit by only a few lights or candles and recited in hushed tones and in the morning, the Book of Lamentations is read once again.
But of course, we cannot remain in this dark and bleak moment for ever. God cannot continually shut out our prayers; God’s anger, driving the author of Lamentations into unrelieved darkness, wearing away his flesh and skin, shattering his bones, deceiving him into believing that his strength and hope have perished before a hidden God, is finite. At his lowest ebb, the weeping poet recalls the kindness of God, whose ‘mercies are not spent… but are renewed every morning.’
It is here that the mood of the day begins to turn and lift; an expression of hope lightens the darkness and relieves the pain. The howling lament recedes; the mourner sits alone and waits patiently for pardon and relief, praying that God will take back His people and renew His people’s days as of old. The late afternoon and evening of Tisha B’Av begin to bring balm and consolation and the hope of redemption. And healing and anticipation come in the weeks that follow with seven prophetic readings read on the seven Sabbaths between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah, all from Second Isaiah, all on the theme of consolation , beginning with Isaiah 40: Nachamu, nachamu ammi amar Eloheychem – ‘Comfort, O Comfort my people, saith your God.’
We move from darkness to light, from mourning to rejoicing from the Three Weeks to Av Menachem – Av, the month of comfort, and into the sixth month of the year, Ellul and a period of repentance and the hope that comes with a New Year awaits us.
The feat – if I may call it – of entering this season of mourning is not easy. Our tempers may be at odds with the liturgical mood of Tisha B’Av, just as we may find it difficult to find the energy to celebrate on the festival of Sukkot, the Autumn harvest festival, that commands to rejoice before God. As a Liberal Jew, I live between two calendars – the Jewish lunar-solar cycle of Sabbaths and holy days, and the Gregorian solar calendar – aware of the history of my own people, but at the same time, conscious of my obligations to all humanity. And I live, too, in the consciousness of this new world, in which something familiar has receded into the past, and something new has entered into our own time. And I cannot see its beauty or meaning; I feel only the strains of recent losses and the uncertainty of future times.
Like the generations that lived in the aftermath of Roman destruction of the Temple, we are silent, in a place of bewilderment and fear; yet in that silence may we sit and wait patiently for God who will help us to return to Him and renew our days as of old.
Rabbi Alexandra Wright
The Liberal Jewish Synagogue