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Ancient Tradition Can Be Linked to Existential Angst

July 23, 2009 By:
David Ackerman
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Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall as they mark last year's Tisha B'Av Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash 90

At the heart of the observance of Tisha B'Av -- the annual day of national mourning that marks the destruction of the ancient temples in Jerusalem -- lies the chanting of the biblical book of Lamentations. A collection of five distinct poems of lament, Lamentations -- or Eichah in Hebrew -- serves as the source for our tradition's language of anguish. All historical disasters find an echo in its rich and painful poetry.

Its middle chapter stands apart from the rest of the book. Adopting a first-person voice, Lamentations 3 offers the anguished cry of a single individual -- perhaps a survivor of the First Temple's destruction. "I am the one who has known affliction under the rod of God's wrath" begins this deeply personal statement.

Unlike the surrounding chapters, Lamentations 3 makes no reference to Jerusalem, to the Temple, to its destruction. Rather, this middle chapter concerns itself with a much less specific and historically bound experience of suffering and despair, coupled with a longing for return and the hopeful possibility of renewal.

Like many ancient and medieval Hebrew poems, this one is an alphabetical acrostic, organizing its lines according to the letters of the aleph bet. The three verses that begin with the letter gimmel stand out. "God has walled me in and I cannot break out; God has weighed me down with chains. When I cry and plead, God shuts out my prayer [Lamentations 3:7-8]."

Trapped and encumbered, the poem's narrator has lost access to God. With these words, the ancient author of Eichah offers us a powerful and poignant definition of alienation -- one that truly resonates across the millennia.

'My Paths a Maze'
Verse 9, the last of the gimmel verses, shifts the metaphor and, for me at least, leads to a whole new understanding of Tisha B'Av: "God has walled in my ways with hewn blocks, and has made my paths a maze." The poet desires connection, but finds obstacles in every direction. Her spiritual GPS provides no assistance as she aimlessly searches out a trail that might lead back to real connection with her, and the world's, animating spirit. Talk about alienation!

The talmudic reading of the verse offers us an intriguing narrative. Prior to the destruction of the Temple, "the women of Lod would set aside their kneading, ascend to Jerusalem to pray and return before the dough had risen." Lod sits approximately 30 miles northwest of Jerusalem. In modern terms, it is the journey from Ben-Gurion International Airport to Israel's capital. In an Israeli taxicab, it takes roughly 45 minutes.

In the ancient world, such a journey would last a couple of days. The women of Lod made the trip there and back, according to this tradition, in under an hour! After the destruction, teaches the Talmud, the network of caves that made this lightning trip possible was covered up and hidden away; as it says, "God has walled in my ways with hewn blocks."

Read as a metaphor (which seems to me the only way to understand this), the Talmud describes the easy access associated with the Temple and its spirituality, and contrasts it with the obstacle-laden path of today. Whether the rabbis believed that it was all so simple when the Temple stood or not, they clearly comprehended the feelings of distance and alienation that we continue to recognize as a feature of contemporary life.

In addition to Tisha B'Av's traditional focus on the long list of catastrophes and disasters that have befallen the Jewish people, we can and should see the annual fast as an opportunity to concern ourselves with the very real challenges to spirituality that we all face. In the post-destruction world in which we live, easy connection to God is frustratingly hard to come by. The internal passages that we perhaps once knew and traversed are all too often hidden and covered over.

Our connections to God have too often been severed by modernity, by the legacies of Enlightenment, by our own skepticism, by an inability to imagine a new path to the divine. By emphasizing what we have lost in the spiritual realm, Tisha B'Av invites us to work to restore a holistic religiosity in a still-broken world.

David Ackerman, the former rabbi for national outreach at the Jewish Theological Seminary, recently became the rabbi of Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley.

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