The words of the Biblical elegy ring mournfully in my ears. “Eicha:How?! Lonely sits the city once great with people! She that was great among nations is become like a widow . . . Bitterly she weeps in the night, her cheek wet with tears. . . . Her enemies are now the masters, her foes are at ease, because God has afflicted her for her many transgressions. . . . Gone from fair Zion are all that were her glory. . . For these things do I weep, My eyes flow with tears: Far from me is any comforter who might revive my spirit. . . . "
The words are from Eicha, the biblical Book of Lamentations, chanted last evening and this morning in synagogues around the world. The recitation is part of the annual observance of Tish’a B’av, an evocative fast day commemorating the many tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people through time. Tradition has it that this is the date when both the First and Second Temples were destroyed, when the First Crusade was proclaimed, when Jews were expelled from Spain, and when the Warsaw Ghetto fell. Some of this, of course, may be only folk memory. But the observance of the day - including fasting, mourning practices, and the chanting of mournful melodies while sitting on the floor in a posture of grief - has always touched deep places within me. Our people has had much to mourn throughout its history, and this observance has always been a powerful expression of that grief.
But this year on Tish’a B’av, the sadness in me is different. Surely, there are still dangers to our people – from Iran, from Hamas and Hezbollah, from the scourge of anti-Semitism still active in the world. But the heaviness in my heart and the tears in my face this year stem more from our own failings than from attacks by our foes.
With the haunting melody of Lamentations ringing in my ears, I hear an unfamiliar set of questions paralleling those of the biblical text. Eicha: How can it be that the Jewish people, so long oppressed, is now associated in the minds of so many around the world with the oppression of others? How has the messianic dream of Zionism, a liberation movement for a people long marginalized and subjugated, come to represent the subjugation of others? How has the progressive idealism of the Zionist founders soured into blindness to the pain of others and a stubborn insistence that only our own security matters? How has the miraculous revitalization of the Land of Israel and the Hebrew language been overshadowed by the desire of Jewish fundamentalists to force on all Jews a coercive, pre-modern definition of Jewish identity and practice? How can it be that at this moment in Jewish history it seems that self-destruction seems a greater danger than the risks posed to us by others?
This morning’s observance brought much pain but also a word of comfort, as the Book of Lamentations called for critical self-examination (“Let us search and examine our ways, and turn back to God”), and the rhythm of the day gradually moves from the morning’s grief to the restoration of hope. We were urged to spend the afternoon performing acts of tikkun, deeds of kindness and repair.
Most comforting of all was a message from my dear friend Fatma Reda, a devout Muslim, who wrote with words of blessing for my observance of Tish’a B’av. She wrote that she had been praying and would continue to pray, “for the Israel that God promised the world.” She wrote that the healing of the Muslim nation and the healing of the Jewish people are not only intertwined but one seamless destiny. Her prayer touched my heart and gave me hope.