The ninth of Av swoops in quickly, coloring the sky green and laced with blood like a tornado. Full of debris, it forces us to stop what we are doing and mourn. The First and Second Temples; the loss of parents, homes, children, lives.
It is some years after my son’s father and I divorced, and I am getting ready for a new wedding and a new chance at love. My fiancé is not Jewish, and often tells me, smiling, the Jews have too many holidays. I tell him the Ninth of Av—called Tisha B’Av in Hebrew—is my least favorite one; yet it seems to me sometimes that we need more than a day to mourn—and not just for ourselves.
Some years later, as we approach the day, I count what has been a summer of losses. My best friend in high school collapses some hours after a doctor’s visit and dies. He has a wife and daughter, and when we reconnected on Facebook he told me how happy he was to have found them and everything else in his life. He had been a professor of literature and published eloquent, lyrical books about baseball and his favorite team—the Mets.
When we had been in high school together, my friend loved to tell stories, jumping around the room and gesturing wildly in a joyful dance. In our high school play, we were husband and wife in a production of Look Homeward Angel. One night I forgot some of my lines and he whispered them to me while lying on a couch in the midst of a dramatic argument. We traveled to Europe together during sophomore year in college, when I was nursing a broken heart. Though I was mostly a train wreck, I could not have asked for a better or more understanding friend.
Now gone. A few weeks later a colleague from the Playwrights’ Center is struck by a car after seeing a show in Minneapolis. He falls into a coma and dies in less than two weeks; a gallant, funny, talented writer and father of two daughters. His wife was my agent when I was doing voice-over work here and now I am reading about her on CaringBridge, about her husband’s last days. Not even a week later, a young man who was on my son’s high school football team drowns while swimming with friends.
How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! how is she become as a widow!
Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith the Lord hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger.
From above hath he sent fire into my bones, and it prevaileth against them: he hath spread a net for my feet, he hath turned me back: he hath made me desolate and faint all the day.
I open the Book of Lamentations, read every year on Tisha B’Av and known as “Echah” or “Alas” in Hebrew, drawn to the words inside and simultaneously repelled by them.
They are, of course, a beautiful rendition of suffering, and at the same time lay the suffering at the door of God while elevating the sorrow of the writer above all others. Yet even he must have seen that suffering was not only his lot; did he think or even imagine the Temple would be rebuilt some day, or that human suffering would end?
Tisha B’Av is a fasting holiday, in remembrance of the destructions in 586 BCE by the Babylonians and in 70 CE by the Romans. For nine days prior to the holiday, we are asked to prepare for the fast; stopping laundry, showering, swimming, eating meat, drinking wine. On Tisha B’Av we don’t even read Torah and except for the Book of Job and some sections of the Talmud.
The fasting—of course the hardest part of the holiday—is to remember the starvation of all the innocents in Jerusalem after the Temples were destroyed. Right now it makes me think of the infants in Somalia, staring out of news photographs with heartbreaking eyes. The words in Echah talk of suffering as punishment from an angry God. Reading them makes me angry, too.
I cannot believe that God is punishing people in the most heinous and diabolical ways for things we may have done, or not done. And if it is random, and God stands by while all this suffering continues, then what is the point? What are we praying for? Or to?
On Tisha B’Av, I think, we recognize death is all around us, that no matter who we are and where we live it will find us, randomly and without regard for us as individuals, families, people or tribes. As I write this I’m seeing a 1930s movie star, someone snarly like Bette Davis, saying “God has nothing to with it,” in the middle of a party on Park Avenue. How would she have written the book of Lamentations? I see her laughing when I ask. All of it has always been written. The words are carved into our souls.
I look down at the book and close it. I know what it is telling me; I do not need the words. It says life is bumpy; it has no shame. Yet we cling to it, and if God can really see us, I don’t want to think of Him/Her as meting out cruelty because we haven’t said enough prayers. I want instead to see God in the healing moments—in friends that reach out to us, in crooked lines that lead us to the people we are supposed to meet. A Catholic friend said this to me when life was smacking both of us, and I have never forgotten it.
The book says when the Temples were destroyed, the people were left desolate. Yet centuries later our books and traditions are still here. Perhaps there is something good about being such a “stiff-necked people,” as Biblical sources call us. Destruction may be imminent, but we are still, God help us, dreamers. And if you can dream a life, you can at least use those dreams to live it boldly, so when the suffering comes, you can reach beyond it. Knowing it will pass? Or knowing you’ve done things that matter—or (OK, maybe) tried.
As the fast day arrives, I pray death will leave us alone for a while, knowing I cannot play him. But I hope he will take his time at least, before reaching out his hand to us again. I open the Book of Lamentations and see no comfort in it. But if others are reading this book in synagogues around the country, I hope we will be here for each other when death and suffering land. Is that where God lives? On Tisha B’Av, it is what I am praying for.
Filed Under: Being Jewish