Pandemic Lamentations: My Jewish Standard Dear Rabbi Zahavy Column for July 2020

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

These past few months in 2020 have been such a sad time of worldwide suffering, specifically due to the impact of the covid-19 virus. On the upcoming Tisha B’Av fast day (the ninth day of Av, which this year begins on the evening of July 29 and ends at sundown on July 30), would it be appropriate to make note of what is going on around us and perhaps to recite prayers to lament and to seek consolation for our present sufferings? How would that work for us?

Lamenting in Leonia

Dear Lamenting,

Yes, that surely is appropriate to do. Though our world of 2020 seems distant from the ancient times of Tisha B’Av, in 70 C. E., when Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed, the underlying human conditions of life have not changed. Sadly, this year we have come to the point where right now we face extraordinary suffering, trauma, and destruction, on the personal, communal, and global level.

To make for yourself a meaningful Tisha B’Av 2020, you will need to creatively repurpose our old and established rituals, which were instituted after the destructions of 70 C.E. Under the circumstances, you should go for it, and create a new set of lamentations for yourself.Keep in mind that the events of 2020 and of 70 are distant chronologically, but they are similar in several ways.

On the Tisha B’Av of 70, we Jews lamented that invader armies destroyed our holy city, Jerusalem, whose very name means “our inheritance of peace and wholeness.”

On the Tisha B’Av of 2020, we all must lament how the invading virus has disrupted the wholeness of our lives. For each of us, the personal Jerusalem of our citadels of peaceful and whole lives have been undermined and derailed in so many ways.

On the Tisha B’Av of 70, we Jews lamented that invader armies sacked and burned our sacred Temple, where priests offered regular scheduled daily sacrifices, where they kept the calendar and declared the new moons, where they brought the festival offerings to God in the annual cycles of the years.

On the Tisha B’Av of 2020, we all can lament how the invading virus has derailed us from our life, schedules, and routines, at our homes, at our work, at our schools, and of course in our synagogues.

In the traditional Tisha B’Av service in many synagogues, which have been held for 2,000 years, we sat on the floor and we chanted our mournful laments. We fasted for the whole day, to deepen our sense of grief and loss.

Our Tisha B’Av laments in the past concluded with the urgent prayerful plea of “hashivenu” from the book of Lamentations 5:21. “Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old.”

And it is true, you may say, that it is hard to see through to the restoration of order and wholeness in our lives while we still are in the midst of profound disruption and suffering.

The scroll of Lamentations actually ends on this mournful verse, “But thou hast utterly rejected us; thou art very wroth against us.” From the immediate midst of suffering it is common to feel despair. But in our synagogue recitation of the scroll, we stubbornly reply to that verse with the repetition of the previous one, “Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old.”

Acceptance of our grief and suffering in personal or communal or liturgical ways helps us coalesce our grief, and so it may be therapeutic for the moment. My teacher, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik taught us that the truest prayer comes out of the cries of cavernous existential grief. So this year we ought to be able to feel a truly deep prayer experience. But the Rav also was known to reassure us students after speaking of the angst of existential sufferings. He would say to us, “We Jews are a resilient people. Yes, we were persecuted repeatedly, and we suffered greatly. But we know how to bounce back!”

Yes, the road before us looks steep and uphill. We will have a lot of renewing to do ahead of us. We must be confident that our renewed Jerusalems will be whole and healthy and sound and fit like the old ones were — or perhaps even better.

So, yes, let us create our own Tisha B’Av for 2020.

This year’s challenges — to our wholeness and health, to our rituals and recreations, to our regularity, plans, and projects, to our purity inside the sacred spaces of our homes and communities — loom hugely in front of us. We must articulate the specifics of our own personal laments and the outcries of our community. We must articulate the angst of the terrible conditions of our world.

Thus, I’ll conclude here with a few preliminary lines of the laments and the prayers that I am formulating for my Tisha B’Av 2020. Perhaps dear Lamenting, these lines will inspire your own efforts:

Woe and alas.

How tragic it has been to watch the suffering and death broadcast to us daily via our global media from our hospitals — overwhelmed by the tasks of treating the stricken — unprecedented in our lifetimes.

How sad has it been to lose our relatives, our friends. and our neighbors to such awful illness and suffering, and then not to be able to be at their funerals or shivas.

Woe to us for our exceptional schools are closed or postponed or made virtual, our preschools, elementary schools, high schools, and colleges, and our yeshivas and seminaries.

Alas we must forgo so many aspects of our prayerful Temples, synagogues, and shuls, our joyful bar mitzvahs, weddings, brises, seders, even our simple family gatherings.

Woe to us our magnificent restaurants are closed, and our glittering shops are shuttered.

Alas our ambitious travel plans to visit the meaningful, the exotic, and the beautiful destinations of the world are derailed.

Woe to us our live entertainments and diversions in theaters, and arenas of plays and concerts and sports are cancelled. Our health clubs, gyms, and pools are closed or limited.

Woe to us as we bid farewell and goodbye for now to the Temples of our “normal lives” to the peaceful city we so meticulously built in which to live.

Our normalcies are the sacred precincts of our lives — and they have been invaded and interrupted.

This year’s challenges — to our wholeness, to our rituals, to our regularity, to our purity inside our own sacred spaces of homes and communities — are enormous.

Our laments end with a hopeful prayer.

Hashivenu. Let us reach way down and find the confidence we need to survive today and restore tomorrow. We pray. Hashivenu. Help us O Lord to restore our wholeness.

Tzvee Zahavy of Teaneck has been a distinguished professor of Jewish studies, religious studies, Talmud, Jewish law codes, and Jewish liturgy at major U.S. research universities and seminaries. He received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He has published numerous scholarly and popular articles and books about Judaism and Jewish life. Go to www.tzvee.com for details of his publications.

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