The summer I remember was nearly half over by the time of Tisha B’Av. The ninth day of the month of Av is a time of endings, when Jews lament the destruction of both the First and Second Temples and other tragedies experienced by Jewish people throughout the centuries.
As the day got closer I had good reason to think of endings, as the days in the house I had shared with my son Josh and his father were coming to a close. Josh’s dad and I had talked with our son about our separation and divorce. “This will always be your home,” his father said, “but your mom is going to a new home and I’m moving back here. Because we won’t be married any more, you’ll be with your mom on some days in a new house, and other days here with me.”
Josh had turned four in June, and though he was usually talkative, divorce had left him with little to say. His blue eyes were wide as he stared at his dad. He repeated the words, “This will always be your home,” and said nothing more. I thought of Simone Weil’s phrase about irreducible sadness, and how true that was for children who could not reduce the sorrow of their families breaking apart.
On Tisha B’Av the Book of Lamentations is read, known as “Echa” for its first word, which is translated from the Hebrew as “Alas.” During Tisha B’Av, people fast and follow the customs of mourning, reciting mourning prayers and avoiding washing, shaving or wearing cosmetics and celebrations.
“Alas! Lonely sits the city
Once great with People! She that was great among nations
Is become like a widow;
The princess among states Is become a thrall.”
Two days after the Ninth of Av I was packing suitcases; it was the last night I would spend in my former house. Josh was with his dad and I lay awake in his room, tossing and turning. I had found a place to live in a neighborhood I liked on the north side of town, and in the past few months I had also found new friends and possibilities. But it was still a time of endings and I would be lying if I said I was not afraid.
I thought of a story I’d heard in Jerusalem about Rabbi Akiva visiting the city after the Second Temple was destroyed. Akiva said it was time to rejoice, because the destruction of the Temple meant prophecies about Jewish people returning to Jerusalem would come true. Then I thought of the Jungian notion saying basically the same thing; when misfortune strikes, think of it as the beginning of something new and better. When you have good luck, beware.
I’d like to say this worked, but it didn’t. I felt literally as though I had made the bed I was lying in and wanted more than anything to get out of it. I had tried like everyone tries, and failed in a marriage I’d hoped would last; but we can never go backwards. I sat up in bed, looking out the window at the large expanse of lawn outside, mottled here and there by streetlights and the moon.
“My eyes are spent with tears, My heart is in tumult.”
I felt like a giant ghost was settling inside my chest and planned to stay for quite some time. I had visited my new synagogue briefly on the Eve of Tisha B’Av but could not bring myself to sit down; the words of Echa were playing too loudly in my head.
I started thinking instead about the Temples. Were they really both destroyed the same day or did the destruction happen in the same month? Were the days melded into one to commemorate both tragedies? The two Temple buildings were distinctly different. The first was built by King Solomon and had been destroyed by the Babylonians; the famous song/saying “If I forget thee O Jerusalem” was said to have been created during this time.
The Second Temple was built by Herod, and though he was hated, it was written in the Talmud that “He who has not seen the Temple of Herod, has never seen a beautiful building.” Yet the Romans still destroyed it when the Jews resisted their rule.
I decided Akiva was wrong. There is no comfort in endings, no matter how much good might come to you at other times. We are creatures of the day, and we have only days (and nights) that must be lived through. Which doesn’t mean you can’t have hope.
“The kindness of the Lord has not ended, His mercies are not spent.
They are renewed every morning—Ample is Your grace!
The Lord is my portion,” I say with full heart; Therefore will I hope in Him.”
This was not what I had wanted. But this was what I found: the lower floor of a duplex on a pretty street near a park; a part-time job with people I liked; a major production of a new play. Josh’s dad and I had worked out a schedule that allowed him to see one of us almost every other day.
Yet the heart cannot skip or laugh when it has lost something. The heart relies on the feet to walk slowly forward, on the hands to re-make and re-create, on the eyes to look elsewhere, and the mouth to smile and speak when we don’t feel like talking. Divorce, like death, forces us to transform and to re-evaluate, and this too perhaps, is the lesson of Tisha B’Av.
I opened the window, leaning out into the air. When I had told a Russian friend about the divorce, she had said something that surprised me. “We are supposed to be fighters.”
The Lamentations are repeated every summer, but when the day ends we look to the New Year, with its new beginnings, to fly us full-tilt into the light. No matter how many Temples have been destroyed, we are supposed to be fighters. And sometimes, that is all we have to carry us through.
(Photo: “Lecartia Praying” by Maria Krüger)
Filed Under: Being Jewish