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Tishah B’Av – and a Vigil for Life

Judaism teaches us that all life is sacred, that all the living are responsible for one another, and that, whoever is ultimately to blame, death by violence, especially the deaths of children, is a terrible desecration which shames us all.

By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

Tonight, at the beginning of the fast of Tishah b’Av, we read Eichah, the Scroll of Lamentations. I believe it is the only text we read specifically at night except for the Haggadah, which forms the substance of the Seder. As the latter celebrates our freedom, so, by contrast, Eichah laments its loss.

Four of the five chapters of this painful text are written in acrostic form, each verse or group of verses beginning with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. One of the most compelling explanations for this which I have heard suggests that the author was so pained and horrified by the death and devastation which he saw before his eyes that he was rendered incapable of coherent speech. At the same time he felt impelled to give vent to his feelings in words. The only way he could do so was to cling to the structure of the alphabet, rather as a faint and frightened  person might hang on to the bannisters to prevent himself from falling down to the invisible bottom of a fathomless stairwell.

This author is traditionally understood to be the prophet Jeremiah, who lived through the subjugation of Jerusalem, its sacking by Nebuchadnezzar twelve years later and the final demise of the remnant of the population who remained in the city. Of all the disasters he witnessed, nothing appalled him more than the deaths of children:

  • …They say to their mothers ‘Where’s corn and wine?’ as their life drains away and they turn into corpses in the streets of the city, as they breathe out their last breaths in the laps of their mothers.
  • …Rise up! Cry out in the night, at the start of the watch! Pour your heart out like water; stretch your hands out to God, for the lives of your young children, dying of starvation in the streets.

Once again today children are dying amidst violence and war. In Israel too, parents, people many among us know and care for, are weeping the terrible loss of their children; yesterday thousands attended the funeral of Hadar Goldin, bringing the number of young men killed just as their lives were truly commencing to 64. There would have been many, many more were it not for the Iron Dome. In Gaza, over 400 children, caught up in horrors which they had no part in creating, have been killed before their lives have even properly begun. Elsewhere too in the world children are dying in huge numbers. Tonight is also the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, with its millions of young dead.

Judaism teaches us that all life is sacred, that all the living are responsible for one another, and that, whoever is ultimately to blame, death by violence, especially the deaths of children, is a terrible desecration which shames us all. Judaism teaches us that, however great we consider the guilt of others, and in our world today it is constantly shocking, we must nevertheless examine ourselves to ask what we should have done and should now do.

I admire deeply all those who strive to protect life, especially the lives of the most vulnerable, from hunger, illness, violence, homelessness and hopelessness. For myself, I hope this Tishah b’Av will strengthen my resolve to do more.

Posted on 4 August 2014

This blog aims to provide articles of interest on the weekly parashah and issues in Masorti Judaism, representing the full range of diverse views that exist among Masorti members. For guidance on any of the issues raised, please consult your rabbi.

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