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We Are the People of Tisha B’Av
On Tisha B’Av, we remember. We remember
the catastrophes that befell our people
throughout the generations. We remember
our temples, twice destroyed, the waters
of Bavel where we lay down and wept.
We remember the blood and we remember
the fire. We remember the fear and we
remember the shame. We remember the ache
of exile, repeating, throughout the generations:
“My heart is in the East and I in the uttermost
West,” the words catching in our throats like
shards of broken glass.
We remember our martyrs. Shimon ben Gamliel
and Rabbi Yishmael, each of whom sought to die first
to avoid seeing the other suffer. Rabbi Akiva, flailed
to death by metal spikes, drawing out the Sh’ma so
to expire when the word echad passed through
his lips. Chanania ben Teradion, wrapped in a Torah
scroll and set on fire, wet wool placed on his body by his
tormentors to prolong the pain.
And the nameless, uncounted, holy martyrs in every
generation, they are remembered. In York and Mainz,
Cordoba and Fez, Kiev and Kishinev, Hevron and Tzfat.
Wounded and scarred, we remembered. Confused
and frightened, we remembered. Throughout the
generations we remembered. And in ’67, Har HaBayit
in our hands at last, our paratroopers wept and remembered.
I once heard this: in the days before the Allies liberated
Auschwitz, there was mass confusion and the Nazis
began shooting Jews with indiscriminate fervor.
So, to save themselves, a little girl and her younger
brother descended into the sewer system of the camp.
The stench was awful and they were terribly afraid
but there was no place else to hide. So, to keep
their sanity the children began to sing. In filth
to their waists, they held hands and sang songs,
remembered from their Sabbath table, songs from
what surely must have seemed like another life.
Songs our people have sung, in good times and bad,
throughout the generations. Then, as the two of
them sang “Shalom aleichem, malachei hasharet,
malachei elyon,” other children heard the plaintive
tune and climbed into the sewer. And soon, they
too were singing. Thinking not of God, thinking
not of angels. Thinking not of history, thinking not
of generations. Thinking of the notes, only the notes.
Fluid as milk, sweet as honey. Holding hands.
Determined to survive.
Is there a single day in history on which Jews could
not rightfully choose to mourn? A single minute?
Imagine the endless fast. The low stools of grief.
We are the people of Tisha B’Av, the Tisha
B’Avniks, stuck forever on that bloody day;
the harbinger of bloody millennia, the harbinger
of a bloody future. For this we know and this, too,
we’ll remember. In Gaza, in the Bekaa, in Tehran,
a hundred-thousand rockets point at Tel Aviv.
And, like Job, the King of the Tisha B’Avniks, the
leader of the low-stoolniks, we beseech God,
demanding answers to impertinent questions.
Why do the wicked prosper? Why do the innocent
suffer? Why, God, did You abandon me when
I needed you most? And God answers us, as he
did to Job, mind your own goddamned business:
“Where were you when I set the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, big shot, if you’re so smart.”
And we cannot leave our sad song without this:
On Tisha B’Av, we remember Michael Levin.
Michael, an all-American boy, who joined
the Israeli army because he felt the pull of history,
the pull of the land, the pull of his people. Michael,
who was in Philadelphia when war in Lebanon
broke out. Michael, who flew back to be with his
unit. Michael, who took a sniper’s bullet to the head.
Michael, whose funeral was attended by thousands,
though he had no relatives in Israel. Michael, who
once said “You can’t fulfill your dreams unless
you dare risk it all.” Michael, who was twenty-two
on the day he was buried: Tisha B’Av, 5766.
What are we to do with this destiny of devotion
and death? We are always climbing, seeking
some unknown celestial summit to plant a flag
in triumph, but who can breathe the thin air
at such heights? Only angels and we are not,
will never be.
And yet, we remember, throughout the generations,
that morning follows the darkest night and spring
the coldest winter. We remember our sages teaching
that the Messiah will be born on Tisha B’Av.
We remember that even in the sewers of Auschwitz,
there can be hope.
Nearly 20 years ago, I wrote a poem called Why I Write Poetry, in which, spoiler alert, I offer a series of reasons why poetry writing appeals to me. And, in one line, I proclaim: I write poetry because I like the look of ink on a yellow pad. When I use a red pen, the words appear to be written in blood.
Recently, I tried to recall what I was thinking about when I wrote those words. To “write in blood,” is a metaphor, of course; one that implies a kind of existential importance to the words being written; a suggestion that, with the turn of a phrase, the poet can create or destroy. I think I must have been feeling very full of myself back then, to have written such a self-aggrandizing line.
This week’s parsha poem, in honor of Shavuoth and the recently commemorated Yom Hazikharon, is entitled, The Pain That Cuts Deep, and it comes from a different place, from a humbler poet; one who knows what it feels like to watch a son become a soldier; a poet who has reached a point in life where he understands, that ink is ink and blood is blood and the power to create and destroy, as if one were a god, is nothing but a self-aggrandizing illusion.
The Pain That Cuts Deep
…a youth and a lass slowly march toward the nation…dressed in battle gear, dirty…full of endless fatigue, yet the dew of youth is still seen on their head…then a nation, in tears and amazement will ask: “Who are you?” And they will answer quietly, “we are the silver platter on which the Jewish nation was given.”
–Natan Alterman, The Silver Platter
When my son was 10, he insisted we stay up all
night on Shavuoth studying, according to the ancient
tradition. Balancing the need for a good night’s sleep
against the pleasure of spending time with my boy,
it was an easy choice and when I asked him what he
wanted to learn, he said poems:
But Jewish poems, abba.
That night we read dozens of poems—Jewish poems—
until it was time for the morning prayer. He was the youngest
person in the room. When we walked home, I asked him which
poem he liked best and he said (almost too quickly):
Alterman, The Silver Platter.
When my son was 13, with a sweet jump-shot but 4 inches
too short and 30 pounds too light to make the team, he wailed
on the car ride home like the child he was. But the grief and loss
were real and deep. And though I understood why he’d been cut
(in more ways than one), I had to pull over, halfway home,
unable to see the road through my own sodden eyes. But I knew
what he did not; he would never be cut from a team again.
When my son was 16, he told me he needed to go to Poland
to see the death camps. Money, I told him, was tight and
he said he’d pay the $2,000 himself. I asked him why it was
so important and he answered with a question:
How can I pass up the privilege of being a witness?
And, as if I needed more convincing:
That generation is almost gone. The witnesses must tell their stories.
When my son was 18, he told me he was joining the Israeli army.
When I asked him why, he answered, again, with a question:
How can I pass up the privilege to serve in the first Jewish army since Bar Kokhba?
Afraid, knowing the now well-built point-guard with a killer jump-shot
would not have a desk job, I said, in a voice, too harsh:
This isn’t a novel; you’re not Ari Ben Canaan.
Instead of responding in kind and with a literary reference
better than mine, he disarmed me:
The Jewish nation, he said, wasn’t given on a silver platter.
When he was 24, my son, the lieutenant, came home on furlough.
He does not discuss his life as a soldier and this is probably best
for all concerned. And he has never spoken about the camps,
though I have asked. But that’s okay. When he is called,
the witness will take the stand.
Throughout the too-short visit, just to look at him leads me to tears.
But I make no effort to conceal my sodden eyes. Matt learned, long ago,
to appreciate the pain that cuts deep. And though he is now, forever,
beyond the dew of youth, I do not have to ask him who he is.
He is the boy who stayed up one night to read poems with his abba.
He is the silver platter on which my life was given.
On the day that Jeff died, I drove to his childhood home. He had not lived there for 30 years, but I remembered the address—2907 W. Gregory—and it was almost as if my car took me there guided by some sort of mind-reading cruise control. I half-expected to see Jeff’s rusty ’69 Subaru in front of the house and Jeff shooting hoops in the driveway.
How many hours did we spend together, going one-on-one, practicing our crossover dribbles, shooting jumpers? We’d play without regard to the clock until, drenched in sweat, the dusk making it hard to see, we would sit on the stoop in front of the house and talk, sometimes until the street lights came on. And, then, we’d pick up the ball and play some more.
As I sat there on that awful day, wondering how I was supposed to mourn my best friend of 35 years, my sadness turned to rage. I couldn’t remember what we used to talk about nor could I summon Jeff’s voice. I shook the steering wheel hard enough to rock the car.
And, then, this silly line from Jabberwocky popped into my head and I laughed out loud: “The time has come,” the Walrus said, “to talk of many things: Of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings and why the sea is boiling hot and whether pigs have wings.”
Obsessed with poetry from the age of 12, I had this annoying habit of quoting passages from poems I was reading. Once, I recited that exact line to Jeff who thought it, and poetry for that matter, stupid. And, in that moment, I was transported back 30 years and heard his familiar voice assure me that I would “never…ever…ever” have a girlfriend. It was the second “ever”—ironically poetic—that made me laugh.
Jeff and I became friends during the first semester of our freshman year at the Ida Crown Jewish Academy. He called me one night around 10 o’clock and asked me to help him write a paper. “Sure,” I said, “When’s it due?” “Tomorrow,” he replied, “But not until 3rd period so we have plenty of time.” And he said this without an ounce of guile or sarcasm and with such great charm, that I wrote the paper for him.
Jeff, like anyone, experienced some difficulties in his life. He graduated from college but struggled to make a living. He married, but it was a terrible match and he spent years ensnared in costly and vicious divorce proceedings.
However, his life wasn’t all bad. He had two children, whom he adored, and after his divorce was finalized, he met a nice woman and they fell in love. At age 44, working full-time as a paralegal, he decided to go to law school at night and after five years was waiting for his test results from the California Bar.
And then he died.
Jeff loved to quote famous Jewish stories or aphorisms. He was partial, in particular, to Pirkei Avoth.
He appreciated the relatively simple language of the Mishna and the big ideas on virtually every page. This wasn’t endless, mind-numbing Talmudic sophistry about the consequences of, say, an ox goring another ox. There were, after all, few oxen roaming the streets of Budlong Woods in those days. No, Pirkei Avoth was about how a Jew ought to carry himself in the world. It spoke to Jeff’s innate goodness, to his spirit, to his Jewish soul.
I remember he liked to quote the following sayings:
But his favorite passage of all was: “Ben Zoma said, And who is the wealthy one? He who is content with his lot.”
As much as Jeff aspired to be such a man, he sometimes wavered. We lived in different cities for 20 years but talked on the phone 4 or 5 times a week and I remember one call, a couple days before he died, in which he challenged me: “Why doesn’t God perform flashy miracles anymore? Has he lost his touch? Let God appear before me in a burning bush that does not consume itself!”
Annoyed by his theatrics but sensing his pain, I felt no need to engage him in debate. Instead, I tried to lighten the mood with a familiar joke each of us had offered to the other, countless times:
“What would Ben Zoma say?”
This time, Jeff’s answer scared me. He quoted the famous Talmudic legend of the 4 men who enter Paradise: Ben Azzai, Elisha Ben Abuya, Rabbi Akiva and our old friend Ben Zoma. Ben Azzai died, Elisha Ben Abuya became a heretic and Rabbi Akiva emerged unscathed. But Ben Zoma, Jeff reminded me, went insane.
Uncomfortable and unsure how to respond, I quickly changed the subject and, soon, we said goodbye.
It was the last time we spoke.
I sat in my car for a long time, but before I drove home, I remembered the night before Jeff left for college. He was going to Yeshiva University and I was staying in Chicago. We had been playing ball in the driveway under the street lights, not keeping score. As long as we kept playing, we didn’t have to talk. As long as we kept playing, we could pretend this wasn’t the last time we’d ever be together like this.
It was close to midnight and Jeff asked if I still had the key to the Academy that I was given when I was elected president of the student council. When I showed him the key, which I had kept as a souvenir, never expecting to use it again, he got this look on his face that told me our evening was not yet over.
It was a 10-minute drive to the school. It’s unthinkable now, but in 1977 there was no alarm system or security detail, so we let ourselves in and raced to the gym. This was the place we were most at ease in the world; a sanctuary from our fears and doubts, from troubles at home or the pain of an unrequited love, the place where we pushed our bodies to grow strong and swift, where we took pride in the uniform, where we learned that, in this world, nothing worthwhile is given and that sacrifice doesn’t necessarily assure success. This was the place where we discovered that victory is never as rewarding as you think it will be, nor is loss as devastating. This was the sacred place where cheerleaders called out our names: “Jeffrey, Jeffrey, he’s our man, if he can’t do it, David can!”
We tried to calculate the number of hours each of us had spent there in practice and games and agreed it was far more than either of us had spent studying. But, this gym was no less a classroom than the others throughout the building, where we plodded through Talmud, Tanach, Hebrew grammar, math and science; subjects we tolerated during the interminable days because, at 5:30, when school let out, we were rewarded with the ball and the hoop.
We couldn’t figure out how to turn on the lights but our eyes soon adjusted to the dark. We found a couple of basketballs in the corner of the gym and began a game of H-O-R-S-E, talking only when describing the shot the other had to take: “Close your eyes. Half-court. Off the backboard.” We were relieved to concentrate on the game; to sublimate our emotions, which we couldn’t bear to discuss.
After a while, we decided to see whether we could find any food in the cafeteria. It was locked but Jeff noticed a large, white, bakery box in a garbage bin outside. He opened it to find a dozen giant sugar cookies, each one heavy with a mound of buttercream frosting. It didn’t matter that they were probably stale. It didn’t matter that our mothers would pass out if they knew their sons were eating pastries from a dumpster.
Jeff carried the box into the gym and I followed him. It was after 2:00am and we were exhausted. He placed the box at center court and laid down on his back next to it, propping his head up with the one of basketballs. I laid down on the other side of the box and did the same. Then, we stared into the darkness and ate until the box was empty; the buttercream frosting melting against the roofs of our mouths.
And, then, Jeff said, “It’s going to get hard now, isn’t it?” As close as we were, I didn’t realize, until that moment, that he was terrified of the future. I didn’t know what to say. Without thinking, I stammered a meaningless platitude, “It’s going to be great; you’re going to be great.”
He didn’t respond right away. The exhaustion, the emotion, the 3,000 calories he had just ingested, must have weighed on him. Or, maybe Jeff knew things wouldn’t be great at all.
I looked at him and could see he was struggling to stay composed. I was struggling myself. That either of us would cry in front of the other, at age 18, was simply not a possibility. And after a long while, without an ounce of guile or sarcasm, and in recognition of the enormity of the moment, he said:
“You know, Dave…this…you should really write a poem about this.”
And more than 30 years later, hardly able to believe he was gone, I did.
In my dream I hear the drum of balls
And am transported back across the years.
So simple then were my life’s protocols
And in the dream a memory reappears.
We sprint, we shoot, we run our drills,
Our sweat drips to the floor,
Hoping that the work instills,
The strength to fly, to soar.
A teammate passes the leather sphere,
I squeeze its pebbled grain to get a grip,
And all distractions round me disappear,
Amidst the humble joy of fellowship.
Boys fool themselves that they can fly.
Men know the truth and all such truth implies.
What else but a sonnet, for this boy that I loved?
When I consider the life and death of my friend, trying to make sense of it all, I always return to Ben Zoma.
Who is the wealthy man? He who is content with his lot.
For a long time, I thought Jeff found these words comforting because he never made much money. But, eventually, I realized I couldn’t be more wrong. He understood exactly what Ben Zoma meant, what so many of us fail to grasp; a person’s net worth has nothing to do with their self-worth.
Jeff understood the oft-quoted modern-day aphorism, whose language, syntax and substance sounds as if taken directly from Pirkei Avoth: “Every day is a bank account. Time is the currency. No one is rich. No one is poor. We each have 24 hours.”
Though the world had bruised him, Jeff was content. He knew his life had value.
And what was his value?
And what of miracles, what of that burning bush? A few years ago, I came across a commentary of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin on the miracles of the exodus from Egypt: “Just as there are no answers for the heretic,” he wrote, “there are no miracles for the skeptic.”
And I thought of Jeff. As sad as he was near the end of his life, as abandoned as he may have felt, I hope he understood that the burning bush is no more miraculous than the bush itself. That the fire that burns but does not consume, smolders deep within, even, the skeptic.
No miracle could’ve saved Ben Azzai from an early death, Elisha Ben Abuya from his apostasy, or Ben Zoma from losing his mind. And Rabbi Akiva needed no miracles to substantiate his faith. Each of them were on their own, personal journeys, expressing their respective free wills, in accordance with God’s intention.
God owes us no blindfolded-half-court shots, no fancy parlor tricks. And though the spirits of each of these four seekers of paradise resided deep within the reservoir of his doubts, I think Jeff knew that paradise isn’t a physical place or degree of material comfort; but a state of mind that we can enter at any time.
I want to believe that, even in his darkest moments, Jeff understood that life, life itself, is the miracle; precious and finite, sweet as buttercream frosting.