Yesterday was Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av in the Hebrew calendar, which Jews traditionally spend in mourning for the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. Coming this year at a time of war in Israel, with destruction and the fear of destruction on all sides, the day was more fraught than usual.
On Monday evening, Conservative Jews from the Hartford area gathered at my synagogue for a service in the social hall. As is customary, the lights were turned low, mourning candles were lit, and many sat on the floor to listen to the chanting of the Book of Lamentations. Between chapters, the names of the Israeli dead were read, and a prayer was said for the children of Gaza as well as Israel.
Lamentations is a bitter dirge describing and accounting for the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. It speaks of a people dehumanized to the unimaginable point where “tenderhearted” mothers cook their own children. But having kindled God’s wrath through disobedience, the people have brought the suffering upon themselves.
This conventional understanding of God’s justice — we must deserve our suffering — is problematic to say the least. Did we bring the Holocaust upon ourselves by abandoning religious observance, as some rabbis claimed, and claim? That seems at once appalling and facile, and not only to modern eyes. The Book of Job amounts to an attack on it, making clear that Job did nothing to deserve his tribulation.
But Lamentations nevertheless has something to say to the present moment, particularly in verses 4:13-15:
It was for the sins of her prophets, who had shed in her midst the blood of the just. They wandered blindly through the streets, defiled with blood, so that no one was able to touch their garments. “Away! Unclean!” people shouted at them, “Away! Away! Touch not!” So they wandered and wandered again; For the nations had resolved: “They shall stay here no longer.
In other words, the book does more than teach the familiar Abrahamic lesson that self-scrutiny is essential when suffering comes. It teaches that particular responsibility may lie with those charged with leadership, and that their moral failures are more serious for calling down upon their people the obloquy of the world at large.
There is no pretense that those who destroyed Jerusalem are good, and anyone who doubts the genocidal ambition of Hamas should take a look at its Charter. But that does not mean that Hamas — for all its rockets, its tunnels, and its civilian shields — bears sole responsibility for the current situation, as many of my co-religionists would like to believe.
As Michael Walzer writes in the New Republic, “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has done pretty much everything it could to undermine the [Palestinian Authority] – by expanding West Bank settlements, seizing land and water, and failing to deal with the settler movement’s zealots and thugs and their “price tag” attacks. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict would look very different today if the PA was on its way to statehood.”
Lamentations is worth listening to, on all sides, because it undermines the ability of leaders to profit from the victimization of their people.