"Eicha yashva badad, hair rabati am, haitai k'almana - Lonely sits the city, once great with people. She that was great among the nations has become like a widow".
This Saturday evening, as Jews across the world leave the joy and celebration of Shabbat, our attention will immediately turn to these words - the opening words of Eicha (Book of Lamentations) - reliving the overwhelming tragedy that befell our people thousands of years ago as if it happened only yesterday. Sitting on the floor, living as mourners, the recitation of Eicha to the traditional solemn chant is but one of the main observances of Tisha B'av - the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av - the day on which we mourn the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem and the scattering of our people in exile. As the sun sets and night falls, we will begin our fast - from food and drink, from washing or wearing leather. As a people in mourning, we will be as we are when we sit shiva for a close relative; or, as if the whole nation has died and we are sitting shiva for ourselves.
Throughout the ages, rabbis have piled on to this day, the memory of many other major calamities, making it perhaps the saddest day in the entire Jewish calendar. Still, the destruction of the Temple and the loss of the Jewish homeland remain the central focus of the day and of our reading. And, while the observances of the day are similar to those we adhere to on Yom Kippur - fasting, denial of pleasure, and other signs of mourning - many of us would have to admit that it is very difficult to personally connect with the sadness of this element of Tisha B'av. Yet, it is hard to fathom how these events of more than 2000 years continue to have significance.
In each of the calamities attributed to Tisha B'av, individual lives were lost and each one is a loss to mourn. And, it is true that the entire fabric of Jewish life and living was affected by the exile from Jerusalem. When the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple in 586 BCE and the Roman troops destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE, the Jewish people were driven into exile, becoming subjects of other legal systems, cultural priorities and prejudices. When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, it served not only as a place of worship, but also as a symbol of unity and wholeness. As we remember its destruction, we recognize and experience the opposite - our collective brokenness and despair.
It is hard, though, to live in a place of constant sorrow and/or in the deep abyss of pain. We cannot dwell there, nor can we stay indefinitely. Perhaps it is for this reason that the Jewish tradition cautions against excessive mourning and actually guides us, through the process of shiva, shloshim, yahrzeit, and yizkor, to re-emerge into life as we can. Just as it is when we lose a loved one, when we sit together in tears on Tisha B'av, we are guided through a process of re-emergence and of living. And it is here, where we recognize the true religious opportunity of Tisha B'av. The verses of Eicha lament the loss and destruction, yet in their midst we also come to these words: "Zot ashiv el libi al kein ochil - But this I call to mind; and therefore do I have hope." (chapter 3:7)
It is in moments of deepest sorrow and despair when the glimmer of hope emerges, when the potential to live life and experience the goodness of the world shines, inviting us to navigate through the darkness to reach light, to live life, to remember "My portion is with God, says my soul, and therefore I hope." Even as we cry, even as we mourn, we hope. We look to the future with faith and optimism, refusing to give up, denying pain, and suffering any long term victory, knowing that tomorrow is a new day and that it can be brighter than today. And, in that moment, we know that strength is ours, if only we reach out to each other, to God, and to life's experiences - both good and bad.
The very first Shabbat after Tisha B'av we celebrate Shabbat Nachamu, the first of seven Shabbatot of consolation leading up to Rosh Hashanah, each one ushering us to greater reconciliation and return - to God, to hope, to Israel that is of our hearts and souls. And, as empty as our plates will be of food on Tisha B'av, on Shabbat it is full. As we do each Shabbat preceding Birkat Hamazon (the blessing after meals), we will return to the words of Psalm 126, "Bring back our exiles, Adonai, like streams returning to the Negev. Hazorim b'dimah b'rina iktzoru - Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyous song." Together, we will pray for a reunification of our people, for hope restored, and for joyous song and melody.
As we mark Tisha B'av this week, I pray that we feel the sorrow of our loss, and that through it we also plant the seeds of our collective redemption and hope.
Shabbat Shalom and Tzom Kal (Have an Easy Fast).