The Poetry and Theology of Tishah Be’av

Devarim | Tishah Be'av By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jul 24, 2004 / 5764 | Torah Commentary | Holidays

On the Shabbat prior to the fast of Tishah b’Av, the synagogue reverberates to the opening chapters of Deuteronomy. The name of the book and of the parashah, Devarim – Words – 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 instrument has nothing to do with the magic of incantations. It mirrors the fundamental human condition. The worlds we inhabit are a construct of our minds.

Not for naught does this Shabbat bear the name Hazon, “the vision of Isaiah son of Amoz,” whose haftarah we chant after the parashah.” Vision 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. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, and then by the Romans in 70 CE, did not end Jewish history because inspired religious leaders were able to imbue the darkness with light. The Rabbis alleviated mourning with meaning.

A few samples of their ingenuity should suffice to convey the vibrancy of their vision: Eikhah is the scroll of Lamentations which is read publicly on the night of Tishah b’Av. The word, eikhah itself, however, is merely an exclamation meaning “how” or “alas”. Though rare, it does appear in our parashah and haftarah, as well as in Eikhah. This coincidence prompts a midrash to amplify the linkage. Only three prophets – Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah (traditionally, the author of Lamentations) – made rhetorical use of the word eikhah:

Moses: “How can I bear unaided your troublesomeness (1:12)”
Isaiah: “Alas, she has become a harlot, the faithful city (1:21)”
Jeremiah: “Alas, lonely sits the city once great with people (1:1)”

But the significance goes beyond the lexical commonality. Each prophet in context depicted a different state of affairs. It was the population explosion of Israel in the wilderness that overwhelmed Moses, the unbridled self-indulgence of Judah that aroused the ire of Isaiah and the desolation of Jerusalem that distressed Jeremiah. To drive home its point the midrash draws a vivid analogy. Jerusalem was akin to a wealthy Roman matron who had three different counselors during the course of her life. One advised her in her glory, the second in her debauchery, and the third, at the time of her debacle. In other words, the three readings cover the gamut of the ancient Jewish experience.

Still, the midrash asserts that the basic force of the word eikhah is to express sorrow and chagrin. Its prooftext, though, is unexpected. 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?”(3:9) Because the Hebrew word ayeka has the same consonants as eikhah, the midrash feels justified in citing it to saturate the word eikhah with grief. But the theological consequence of this exegetical move is enormous. The question “ayeka – 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 prooftext is the conviction that we bear some responsibility for our fate and therefore can reverse it (Eikhah Rabbah 1:1).

In the parashah, Moses recounts the episode of the spies sent to assess the vulnerability of Canaan. Their disheartening report extends a brief passage through the wilderness into a sojourn of forty years (1:22 – 45). The subject is not inappropriate to Tishah b’Av. For the night, according to the Talmud, when the spies delivered their frightening assessment, was in fact, the ninth of Av. Upon hearing it, “the people wept that night,” (Numbers 14:1). In pique, God railed against them: “You shed tears for nothing [this night]. Hence, I will designate this night as the time for weeping for generations to come,” (BT Taanit 29a). In consequence, the Mishnah lists five calamities that befell our ancestors on Tishah 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 Kokhba rebellion (Taanit 4:6). Later Jewish history lengthened the list and deepened the mourning with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and the outbreak of World War I.

Historical memory and psychological wisdom combined to aggregate national calamities into a single day of generic mourning and meditation focused on the innate precariousness of Jewish existence. Tishah b’Av lent balance to the calendar. As Yom Kippur gave voice to the fate of the individual Jew, Tishah b’Av addressed the fate of the Jewish people. The day also prevented the calendar from being overrun by commemorative days for each and every calamity. There is far more to the Jewish experience than oppression and persecution. To heighten the intensity of Tishah b’Av, enables us to forget a few trees while we remember the forest.

Self-deprivation marks the ritual of the day. The length of the fast matches that of Yom Kippur, twenty-five hours. Like one in mourning, we neither pamper ourselves nor indulge in sex. We refrain from the pleasure of studying Torah. We sit on the ground as we recite Eikhah and other dirges to music suitably somber. Again, akin to the mourner before burial, we don neither tallit nor tefillin for the morning service.

But we do not mourn alone. Midrash and Talmud abound with images of God distraught by the destruction of the Temple. In one sequence, Eikhah Rabbah has God asking the angels repeatedly how does a king of flesh and blood mourn? Obviously, this is the first time ever that God felt obliged to express grief. As they recount what is done by royalty on earth, God imitates each practice. God darkens the heavens and dims the lights. God upends the mattresses and walks around barefoot. God rends the divine robes, sits in silence, and even breaks into tears. To protect himself from the charge of cross anthropomorphism, the author of the midrash finds a biblical verse depicting God in the performance of each act (Eikhah Rabbah 1:1).

In yet another midrash, it is the bitter weeping of Israel that brings God to tears, while in a third, we find God in an inconsolable state over the loss of a place to dwell on earth. When a heavenly being reprimands God for unbecoming behavior and offers to weep in God’s stead, God threatens to hide in the innermost recesses of the cosmos (Eikhah Rabbah 1:1 and petihta 24). Finally, the Talmud portrays God at each of the three watches of the night bemoaning the sins of Israel which compelled God to destroy the Temple and burn its inner sanctum and disperse the nation in exile. God’s personal link to the world has been severed (BT Berachot 3a).

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.

The Rabbis were not Greek philosophers. Poetry was the language of their theology. The transcendent reality that inspired their faith eluded the distillation of abstract thought. Their picturesque images did no more than convey the absorbing passion of their beliefs.

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Shabbat Hazon Parashat Devarim are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.