We Are the People of Tisha B’Av

 

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.

One comment on “We Are the People of Tisha B’Av

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