Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Tisha B'av and Hope

Today is Tisha B'av, the saddest day in Jewish history. I find it one of the hardest holidays to observe. Not just because you can't eat or drink for 24 hours, that's not pleasant, but hardly impossible. No, I find it tricky because you're supposed to avoid being upbeat and joyous. As I noted a few years ago, you're not even supposed to greet people.

My problem: I'm just too much of an optimist for all this doom and gloom.

Luckily, we have the book of Eichah (Lamentations) to help get me in the proper state of mind. We read it last night, as is traditionally done, by candle light. The text is surprisingly vivid, with heartbreaking descriptions of a starving and crushed people. The book is chanted in a unique melody which further helps to make the whole occasion quite somber (here give it a listen).

As I was making my way through the text though, I noticed something that I hadn't caught in previous years.

Eichah, like nearly all Jewish readings, ends on a slightly positive note. As low as we are supposed to feel on Tisha B'Av, it just wouldn't be appropriate to leave off without some hope.

Yet, as I was making my way through the text, I was surprised to see that half way through Chapter 3 there's a noticeable change in the text. It makes a clear turn to the positive: "Yet, this I bear in mind; therefore I still hope: G-d's kindness surely has not ended ..." (3:22). This goes on for a number of versus, changing the book temporarily from one about desolation to one about hope. Of course, this is hardly a discovery to those who have taken the time to study the text, but for someone who reads the book once a year it was a novel thing to put together. This left me with the question: what the heck was this positive message doing in the middle of a book that had another chapter and a half to go of misery before two slightly upbeat verses would end it?

Those a lot smarter than me have some interesting suggestions. Valveteen Rabbi mentions the tradition that each chapter in Eichah represents the same scene but from a different person's perspective. Lavlor-Anah suggests that these verses can be used as a guide for Jewish mourning. Others suggest that chapter 3 was simply an add on, perhaps by a scribe who thought he could improve on the work.

I can't help but look at this through my own lens. Perhaps Jeremiah, or whoever the author of Eichah was, was like me too much of an optimist. The scene in front of them was too devastating not to record it for future generations to read and learn from. At the same time the message of hope couldn't wait either. Better to squeeze it in the third chapter, than wait till the end.

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