On the Ninth of Av, the anniversary of the destruction of both ancient temples, the Western Wall—now the last fragment of what was once a grand and welcoming home shared by G-d and humankind—is awash with mourners, gathering to read the book of Lamentations. They come to comfort Jerusalem on the loss of her crown and her children, who were murdered and starved as the Temple burned. They also come to find comfort themselves, seeking solace in the company of others who feel acutely the absence of a tangible G-d. No longer is G-d’s presence as obvious in our physical world, and, for some, our perpetual search for meaning and divine conversation is a poor substitute for our ancient meeting place.
Outside of the winding streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, the visceral mourning of Tisha B’Av can be more difficult to access. The days when the Temple stood can feel very far away, foreign to us in our comforts and conveniences, in our own daily struggles and challenges. We have found new ways to seek spiritual connection, new modes of divine dialogue. Standing, as many of us do, in the comparatively young country of America, we are trained to look forward, to strive, to achieve. It’s hard to take a moment to look back in conscious sadness and grieve for a life we never knew.
Nonetheless, heartfelt empathy and sadness are not foreign to us. We find ourselves at a moment in American, Jewish, and world history when we stand witness to great waves of human suffering. The strained faces we see in the news are real to us in ways that the suffering of our ancestors simply cannot be. The deep empathy we feel for today’s refugees, for imprisoned children, for victims of the American gun violence epidemic, is genuine and heart wrenching and not hypothetical in the least. Our own search for meaning in the face of tragedy, our thirst for spiritual guidance, for divine explanation, is something we feel sharply, just as our ancestors did in the wake of the Temple’s destruction.
הִ֚יא יָֽשְׁבָ֣ה בַגּוֹיִ֔ם לֹ֥א מָֽצְאָ֖ה מָנ֑וֹחַ כָּל־רֹֽדְפֶ֥יהָ הִשִּׂיג֖וּהָ בֵּ֥ין הַמְּצָרִֽים... עֽוֹלָלֶ֛יהָ הָֽלְכ֥וּ שְׁבִ֖י לִפְנֵי־צָֽר:
She settled among the nations, [and] found no rest; all her pursuers overtook her between the borders … Her young children went into captivity before the enemy (Lam. 1:3-5).
As we read the verses of Lamentations, the parallels to more recent history jump to mind, piquing our memories, our emotional responses, and our associations. The devastation of those who witness the destruction of a way of life, the lifelong weight carried by survivors, and the urgent need to rebuild a community that was lost are all familiar phenomena to us, exactly where we stand today.
We have a long history of this kind of collective memory and associative empathy—connecting to what we may not have personally experienced but can feel nonetheless. From the table of the Passover Seder to the reverberating echo of the shofar, we count on the soul remembering what our minds do not.
זָכ֣וֹר תִּזְכּ֔וֹר וְתָשׁ֥וּחַ עָלַ֖י נַפְשִֽׁי:
My soul well remembers and is bowed down within me (Lam. 3:20).
We help our souls along with holy texts, with things to taste and smell and touch. We build a supportive scaffold of stories and study and song, and we trust that the memory of our souls can connect us all the way back, even as far as our ancient temple. In this way, we can feel the travails of our ancestors and are able to authentically mourn the losses of our nation.
There is an old custom referenced in the Birkei Yosef (559:7) to clean one’s home on the afternoon of Tisha B’Av in preparation for the arrival of the messianic redemption. Even before the day is done, we are taught to turn to hope. Even as we mourn, we rise up and prepare for our liberation.
נִשָּׂ֤א לְבָבֵ֨נוּ֙ אֶל־כַּפָּ֔יִם אֶל־אֵ֖ל בַּשָּׁמָֽיִם:
Let us lift up our hearts to our hands, to G-d in heaven (Lam. 3:41).
The book of Lamentations itself, one of the most graphic, wounding accounts of genocide and deprivation, cannot resist inserting a chapter of hope. It reiterates the Jewish belief in G-d and urges the nation to continue to rise. To take their metaphorical hearts in their hands and demonstrate through action that we continue to trust, to build, to worship, and to dedicate our innermost selves to the improvement of our world. Whether that action comes in the form of increased human connection, intentional empathy, or social change, our memories and our mourning are only as good as the action that they engender. Memory alone is not enough, rather it is a means to increased faith and kindness and the eventual perfection and redemption of our world.
This year on the Ninth of Av, whether you spend it in the cooling shadow of the Western Wall, on a low chair in an American synagogue, or exploring the loss of the Temple in a way that is most meaningful to you, may you succeed in tapping into our collective memory through personal action and reflection, in seeing that which your soul remembers. And even before the day is gone, may you find a way to offer up your heart for the improvement of our world. May you find the unique ways that you alone can ready it for redemption. May we join together in empathy, in connection and purpose, and find comfort in creating new joyful memories together.
Sara Bellin is a non-profit program manager and freelance writer in the Boston area. By day she engages with contemporary challenges in Jewish education, and then pulls up her chair again at home to write articles relating to Jewish lifestyle, identity and values. Bellin lives in Brookline with her husband and two year old son.
August 10, 2019
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