Saturday, August 13, 2005

Reading Eicha and finding meaning in the Ninth of Av

The two overall themes of megillat eicha that get the most focus are physical destruction and spiritual want. The ancient text is so powerfully written that it can still manipulate emotions. Even if we cannot relate to the lost Temple, we have some limited ability relate to the images of slavery, death, and starvation to the extent that mothers cooked their children for food.
And, yet, with the advent of the State of Israel with Jerusalem as its capital, and the downfall of reward and punishment theology, Tisha B'Av loses its “punch” as a day of national mourning. Even for those who observe the day by going to a service, the ritual can become something that takes place in the synagogue only. After leaving the building (or just the room), life continues normally — precisely what the rabbinic restrictions intended to avoid.

In order to increase awareness of the holiday and bring it modern relevance, many congregations incorporate kinot (mounful liturgical poems) for the Holocaust into their Tisha B'Av service, in keeping with the traditions to add commemoration of each generation's tragedies (destruction of the Temples, the Crusades, pogroms, etc.) to this day. We are now at the third generation after the Holocaust. Even that may be losing its power for us.

There is also a third theme of the megillah, pathos. Total helplessness in the face of the inevitable. The enemy is more powerful and chases us faster than the eagles. The city that once housed a living population is in ruins. Nobody is left to maintain order. The assurances of salvation from the prophets were false hopes. Those who didn't die fighting are slowly perishing from starvation. Pathos is the only way I can think to read this verse (Lam. 4:21):

‏שִׂ֤ישִׂי וְשִׂמְחִי֙ בַּת־אֱדֹ֔ום יֹושֶׁ֖בֶת בְּאֶ֣רֶץ ע֑וּץ גַּם־עָלַ֙יִךְ֙ תַּעֲבָר־כֹּ֔וס תִּשְׁכְּרִ֖י וְתִתְעָרִֽי׃

Rejoice and be glad, daughter of Edom, who dwells in the land of Uz: the cup shall pass over to you also; You too will drinking of it, and you will also make yourself naked.



Perhaps it calls for a new reading of Tisha B'Av. We avoid making requests in prayer on Tisha B'Av because the gates of prayer are closed (“שתם תפלתי”-- Lam. 3:8). The Ninth of Av does not have to be only about commemorating national tragedy, even though that is the vehicle through which it operates. It can also serve as a recognition of powerlessness in the face of the forces of history, a counterbalance to the national ego.

This year, the disengagement from Gaza is, as one friend put it, the “elephant in the room”. Some see it as the start of yet another 9 Av historical tragedy, others as the only chance for moral [and demographic] salvation. Either way, we do not know the outcome of this dangerous and powerful gamble. Is it a giveaway to the terrorists who want to destroy us or is it the first step on the road to (minimally, a cold) peace and a secure Jewish state?

Lam. 5:22 makes the request:

‏הֲשִׁיבֵ֨נוּ יְהוָ֤ה׀ אֵלֶ֙יךָ֙ וְֽנָשׁ֔וּבָה חַדֵּ֥שׁ יָמֵ֖ינוּ כְּקֶֽדֶם:


On its face, it is a request that God turn us back to Him through the observance of the commandments (specifically the ones that relate to human relations). But, it is also be an impassioned plea to return us to the certainty that we are under God's protection, and thus, our days “renewed” as of old.

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Comments:
When will we know? Will we know the day after disengagement is it was condusive for peace? Did you not hear what Chamas said? They proclaimed that they will not end their war until they have the West Bank and Jerusalem too! Did you hear what Abbas said? He said that he isn't satisified but wants the Wet Bank and Jerusalem too! So, for a slim chance of peace, are we willing to sacrifice our holyland? And then, then will they be satidfied? Behind closed doors its the same rhetoric about pushing the jews into the sea. What won't we do to save face? What won't Israel do to gain favor in the eyes of the ant-Semites?
 
There are a number of pro-Israel reasons to support the disengagment. Including:
- the occupation of the Palestinian people involves us in immoral actions (note my careful use of language: this is a different notion than that the land is "occupied territory"). While Israel may try as much as possible to maintain the morally high position, to the extent that soldiers are sacrificed for it (Jenin, for example), the situation itself opposes notions of morality. This is true whether or not you think you can point to Biblical precedent as a claim on the land of the modern state.
- Israel is being demographically overrun, and risks not being a majority Jewish state anymore.
- Defense of roads in the middle of enemy territory and long, windy borders is tactically harder than defense of a relatively straightforward border. Even if the Palestinians remain the sworn enemy of Israel's existence, we will have an easier time defending against them. It's the same argument used to defend the separation barrier in the West Bank.

When will we know? Years after it happens, when it is judged in history. Until then, it's a *very* risky, but potentially necessary, move. As I said in the post, there is no certainty.
 
One more thing -- the major point of this post is not to provide a platform to argue Israelli politics. Don't bother trying to change my opinion. I've read both sides of the arguments in newspapers and blogs already. You're free to do that too. This posts' comments should not become a rehashing of those.

What I'm really interested in is what people think (if anything) of this reading of Tisha B'Av, which, I think has a number of holes in it from a traditional perspective.

The disengagement comes in as an example of how it works -- we don't end up equating the current Israeli government with Nebuchadnezzar (lehavdil), and, yet, it still feels appropriate to think about on 9 Av.
 
I like this reading of Tisha b'Av. You may have noticed that I'm not entirely comfortable with the traditional reading of the holiday (e.g. that it's a time to mourn for the fallen Temple, and yearn for its rebuilding) -- but I like the alternate focus that your post offers. Thanks for this.
 
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