On Tisha Be’Av, it is customary to read from the Book of Lamentations. The text describes in detail the destruction of the Temple of Zion, and the toll it took on life there. The people were exiled from their land and all seemed lost. This week, as I read about my people’s past, my mind began to wander (as it is prone to do), and I thought about all of the inhabitants of the world today, and how they have been dislocated by COVID-19.
And so I began to imagine my own version of the Book of Lamentations. What would it read like?
“The pandemic rages on and I am terrified. When will this nightmare end? I can’t sleep at night. I miss hugging my friends. I am lonely. Every day, more people are dying, more people are unemployed, more people are suffering. And some refuse to wear masks! Why can’t people wear masks?! I want to hide under my bed covers and wake up when the vaccine arrives. Whenever friends and family ask how I’m doing, I shrug and murmur, ‘Okay,’ barely concealing my inner anxiety.”
Tisha Be’Av lasts only one day, but the creators of the Jewish calendar understood that the holiday required time to recover, time to heal. This way, the joyous holiday of Rosh Hashanah could be celebrated fully.
Traditionally, the way this transition has been marked is by reading seven haftarot of consolation: selections from the Book of Isaiah, read over seven consecutive Shabbatot, from the first Shabbat immediately following Tisha Be’Av to the Shabbat leading up to Rosh Hashanah. This Shabbat we will hear the second in the series.
Here’s what I am already discovering about my own healing process while reading Isaiah:
Isaiah has helped me cope with my own despair. He understood the pain of the inhabitants of Zion. He was empathic; he listened to their suffering unconditionally. And so Isaiah instructs me to check in with friends, family, and colleagues to see not only how they’re doing, but to listen to how they’re feeling. I have discovered that this practice actually makes me feel better, because I no longer feel so alone.
Isaiah reminds me of who I am. “Listen to me, you who pursue justice, you who seek Adonai,” Isaiah proclaims. “Look to the rock you were hewn from, to the quarry you were dug from. Look back to Abraham your father and to Sarah who brought you forth. For he was only one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many.” (Isaiah 51:1-2). Such enlightening words. At the very moment I feel like pulling the covers over my head, Isaiah awakens in me my sense of purpose to make the world more equitable and just. Yes, I am still unable to fall asleep, but that’s because now there’s so much to do! At this time in the Jewish calendar, I am making a greater commitment to stay informed, to get out the vote, and to take a knee at our collective vigil to seek justice for the people who have died from police brutality.
Isaiah provides me with a sense of perspective. Sometimes I fear that everything in life that has come before the pandemic will be lost. It is a terror born of the frightening idea that our democracy will be taken away from us. But then I recall that Isaiah asked the Judeans to “Look back to Abraham and Sarah.” That reassures me. Isaiah was able to see the past and the future, and he knew that the loss of the Temple was but one episode in the long journey of the Jewish people. Not incidentally, this same perspective was shared by Congressman John Lewis, of blessed memory! As trying as these current times are, Rep. Lewis assured us, “We will get through this.” Through this combined wisdom—first spoken by an ancient prophet, then by a modern-day Congressman—I remain cautiously optimistic that our democracy will be restored.
As I was growing up, my father—he, too, of blessed memory—would strike up a conversation at the Friday night dinner table by asking two essential questions: what was challenging about the past week, and what was something new and different that happened to us? You didn’t have to be a scholar to understand that Dad was inviting us to draw from our personal lives as a means of connecting to the two significant historical events mentioned in the kiddush that we had just recited: the exodus from Egypt and the creation of the world.
Years later, I would ask these same questions of my own children around the dining table. Sometimes we found the conversations contrived, but other times we embraced them. And so today, there is a third question at our table (even though only one of our children remains at home)—and this new question addresses what we are all surely feeling at this challenging time: What happened this past week that gives us hope? What did we witness, read about, or do that made us feel hopeful about the world?
This last week, all of us had something hopeful to share, and I was consoled. I invite you to ask this question tonight at your family meal.