We sit forlornly on the ground, lamenting,
yet we do not mourn alone.
God clothes the skies with darkness
and covers them with sack,
He clouds the light of sun and moon,
and dims the twinkling stars.
He rends His purple robes
and walks barefoot,
sits lone and silent as He weeps
and asks again, “Where are you?”
In an article entitled The Poetry and Theology of Tisha B’Av* Dr Ismar Schorsch looks at how the Rabbis invested the mourning of Tisha B’Av with meaning and hope. He points out that on the Shabbat before the fast, we read the opening chapters of Parashat Devarim which means “words”. This, he says, “emphasizes the key Jewish response to calamity. Historically, Jews rebuild their shattered worlds with words of high emotion and daring imagination. Like God at the dawn of creation, we bring order out of chaos through words…The worlds we inhabit are a construct of our minds.” He continues that it is not coincidental that this same Shabbat is called Shabbat Chazon (vision) after the vision of Isaiah which is the Haftarah we read. “Vision,” he says, “is the human projection onto a harsh reality. Without the capacity to generate perspective, to find meaning in the midst of catastrophe, to retain sight of the grand picture, we are doomed to succumb to our despair.” Dr Schorsch gives an example of how the Rabbis address this as he examines the midrash on Megillat Eichah (Lamentations) which we read on the night of Tisha B’Av. The word eichah is an exclamation meaning “how” or “alas“. A rare word, yet it does appear in both Parashat Devarim and its Haftarah as well as in Eichah. This repetition prompts a midrash to expand on its meaning:
Only three prophets – Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah (who authored Eichah) – used the word.
Moses: “How can I bear unaided your troublesomeness.”(Devarim 1:12)
Isaiah: “Alas, she has become a harlot, the faithful city.”(Isaiah 1:21)
Jeremiah: “Alas, lonely sits the city once full with people.”( Eichah 1:1)
The midrash records a discussion in Eichah Rabbah (1:1) between R’ Judah and R’ Nechemiah:
R’ Judah says, The word eichah implies nothing other than a reproof, as it says, How (eichah) do you say: We are wise and the Law of the Lord is with us? (Jeremiah 8:8).
R’ Nechemiah says, The word eichah implies nothing other than a lament, as it says: And the Lord God called unto the man and said to him, “Where are you (ayekah?) (Bereishit 3:9) [ayekah] meaning “woe to you – oi lechah.” Dr Schorsch points out that this latter proof text is unexpected. He says, “After Adam and Eve had eaten of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they hid in guilt. God sought them out, “Where are you?” Because the Hebrew word ayekah has the same consonants as eichah, the midrash feels justified in citing it to saturate the word eichah with grief. But the theological consequence of this exegetical move is enormous. The question “ayekah – where are you?” becomes laden with remorse. At the very outset of human history, then, God betrays angst at having created a species that would be a source of endless frustration. Did this initial act of human rebellion anticipate an ever-recurring pattern? Like their progenitors, would humans constantly abuse their free will to drive God to distraction? Implicit in this cryptic proof text is the conviction that we bear some responsibility for our fate and therefore can reverse it.”
The Mishnah records five calamities that befell our ancestors on Tisha b’Av, including the decision to delay the conquest of Canaan by forty years, as well as the destruction of the first and second Temples and the fall of Betar, ending the Bar Kochba rebellion (Taanit 4:6). Many further calamities devastated the Jewish people in later centuries and occurred on or close to Tisha B’Av, including:
The First Crusade which started in 1095. A total of 1.2 million Jews were killed and many communities in Rhineland and France were totally obliterated.
The Jews were expelled: from England in 1290; from France in 1306; from Spain in 1492.
Germany entered WW1 on August 1–2, 1914 (Av 9-10) which caused massive upheaval in European Jewry and whose aftermath led to the Holocaust.
On August 2, 1941 (Av 9), SS commander Himmler formally received approval from the Nazi Party for the “Final Solution” in which almost one third of the world’s Jewish population was decimated.
On July 23, 1942 (Av 9) the mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto began, en route to Treblinka.
Dr Schorsch mentions that just as Yom Kippur concerns the fate of the individual Jew, Tisha b’Av concerns the fate of the Jewish people. He adds that this day also condenses the national calamities into one day so that the calendar is not flooded by commemorative days for each one, noting that the Jewish experience encompasses far more than oppression and devastation.
The ritual of the day is marked by mourning practices. We sit on the ground as we recite Eichah and other dirges.
But, says Dr Schorsch, “We do not mourn alone. Midrash and Talmud abound with images of God distraught by the destruction of the Temple.” He cites one midrash in Eichah Rabbah, in which God asks the angels repeatedly how a mortal king mourns. This is, then, the first time ever that God needs to express His grief. As the angels tell God how mourning is done on earth, God does the same: He sits silently in darkness, walks around barefoot, rips His robes and even weeps. The author of the midrash brings a biblical verse supporting his portrayal of God performing each act. (Eichah Rabbah 1:1 citing verses** from Isaiah, Joel, Nachum and Eichah).
Further midrashim represent God as weeping over the bitter grief of Israel, and being inconsolable over the loss of His earthly dwelling place. When the arch-angel Metatron offers to weep instead of God, God says “If you do not leave Me be, to weep now, I will enter a place where you cannot reach Me, and I will weep there!” (Eichah Rabbah 1:1 and Petichta 24). Finally, in the Talmud God is pictured at each of the three watches of the night audibly mourning that because of Israel’s sins, He had to destroy the Temple, burn its inner sanctum and exile and scatter His people. He is depicted as shaking His head and declaring, “Woe to the father who had to banish His children, and woe to the children who had to be banished from the table of their father!”(BT Berachot 3a). It seems as though God’s link to the world is severed.
However, Dr Schorsch concludes, “On the contrary, though, the import of these bold fantasies of God in mourning is precisely the opposite. The effusion of divine pathos keeps the connection alive. God continues to care passionately about the welfare of Israel. A sacred building is only a symbol for a deep and pervasive bond, which unbroken, holds out the possibility of reconciliation.”
*Posted on the Jewish Theological Seminary website just before Tisha B’Av, July 2004.
** I clothe the heavens with blackness and I make sack-cloth their covering. (Isaiah 50:3).
The sun and moon are become black and the stars withdraw their shining. (Joel 4:15).
The Lord has done what He devised, He has performed His word. (Eichah 2:17). This is understood as a reference to God tearing His purple robe.
The Lord, in the whirlwind and the storm is His way, and the clouds are the dust at His feet. (Nachum 1:3).
Let him sit alone and keep silent. (Eichah 3:28).
And in that day did the Lord, the God of Hosts, call to weeping and to lamentation, and to baldness and to girding with sackcloth. (Isaiah 22:12).