Today I made a full fast, for the first time in my life, for Tisha b’Av. Fasting makes it more difficult, not easier, for me to think, but in a way it puts me more in touch with the people who were there when the calamities in Jewish history took place. Luxury was not available to Jews who witnessed the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the expulsion from Spain, the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, and on and on. They didn’t have water when they wanted it.
There are two questions we might ask about Tisha b’Av. They are why and how.
We already know the who, what, when, where. Jews, calamity, throughout history, everywhere. The stark reality of those truths should not mask the undying hope of a people that nevertheless refuses to die. Tisha b’Av is a sad holiday (as I’ve written about before here) but it is also a holiday of hope. The genius of our observance is to learn to get through the adversity, to accept it, and to realize that accepting it is the key to hope. And hope is the key to survival. Jews are not a victim people, forever lumbering from one punishment to the next. We are a timeless people, a people linked with the world’s intrinsic preference for justice over injustice, a people whose history is inextricbly bound to that of the world itself, and who for that reason cannot perish as so many conquerors and empires throughout history have done.
Part of the wisdom of wringing hope from misfortune is to understand the misfortune. It strikes me that the Book of Lamentations (called Eichah in Hebrew after its first word) does not ask the question why but how. Eichah!—How!–is the lament of Jeremiah. He does not question the justice of God’s punishment of the people. He does not wonder why anyone would bother believing in a deity who seems to have forsaken the people. He knows why God has acted, and it doesn’t need to be said here. God has acted because the people of Israel have sinned.
This is a severe religious idea, and we must be careful lest it appear we are saying everything that happens in the world happens for the best. I am saying no such thing. Nor does it follow that every calamity of the Jewish people was brought upon them by their own misdeeds. It is impossible in a post-Holocaust theology to endorse any such idea. Nevertheless, in Eichah Jeremiah says that these particular calamities are a result of those particular sins by the Israelite people. The Temple was destroyed because the Israelites would not follow God’s teaching.
It is useful for us ot acknowledge the reality that our actions have consequences, and often sin can lead to real-world consequences that are exceedingly bitter. It does not follow that every sin is punished, and it does not follow that every unpleasant event is punishment for sin, but both of these arguments are spurious. It is important to acknowledge that our actions do have consequences, and if we ignore God’s warnings about them, reality will intrude.
The destruction of the Second Temple is an example; the Rabbis give us a record of the political chaos that led to community disarray against the Roman threat (Yoma 9b). Their explanation is at once historically plausible and instantly recognizable for its similarity to situations we all see regularly today. Baseless hatred (sinat chinam) poisons a community from within and makes it impossible to unite against threats. It was a community’s sin, and the destruction of the Second Temple was the real-world consequence that was to be expected.
But how? What went wrong? The hope for change, for learning from our mistakes, depends on answering that question. We need to examine everything. We should have open minds to our own innocence — religion is not an exercise in gratuitous self-incrimination. Besides, we might learn to be better able to assess and prevent similar threats in the future. But we should also have open minds to where we might learn about our own behavior. We understand the why, we accept that the horror happened. The more interesting question for us is Eichah, How?
When we ask Eichah, we aren’t challenging God or wrestling with questions about God’s justice. Those are fine questions to ask, but they’re not the questions we ask in Eichah. It’s important on Tisha b’Av to acknowledge, where necessary, that things went wrong, and to go back and ask without defensiveness what went wrong. How have we come to this?
The key to hope is confidence that we not only survive these calamities, but grow wiser. The Jewish people has been tempered by flames that have destroyed countless other nations. In the Book of Eichah itself, the tone changes from lament to hope when the writer, Jeremiah, acknowledges God’s justice with a total finality, and expresses complete trust in God’s covenant with Israel. Accepting the otherwise crushing weight of these oppressions, not driving ourselves mad with rage at reality, but staying firm in the hope that comes from believing in a God who loves us, has allowed our people to withstand oppression after oppression and grow stronger.
What is the point of believing in a God who punishes? I would ask, what is the point of not believing that reality includes consequences for our actions? Isn’t that awareness an important part of wisdom and life experience? It is an unpleasant reality because we are prone to error. We are also prone to find ourselves in the crossfire of other people’s sins and their consequences. Still, it strikes me that the most important question is Eichah? How?
Eichah is the antithesis of despair because it shows that there is another step toward the Light after tragedy. This is why we refuse to die. Our plodding, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other insistence that tragedy is not the last word, that lament leads to wisdom, that we are still here to ask Eichah, is the Jewish people’s timeless key to survival.