We trudged out into the night at its very beginning, just after the sun had slipped from view, yielding to darkness’s slow spread across the mid-summer sky. Step after heavy step we crossed a wet field and then unstable gravel, feeling the seriousness of the evening descend. The day’s heat dissipated in its waning moments as we reached our destination. As instructed, we sat in circles of ten on cold concrete. At each circle’s center sat one small candle, flickering tentatively, but constantly, in the darkness. For the next twenty-four hours, we would not eat or wash. Instead, we would walk as mournersâ€”bearing a lingering sense of grief, and seeking comfort.
In this introspective atmosphere every summer, campers and staff members at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, a Jewish camp affiliated with the Conservative movement, commemorate one of the most mournful days on the Jewish calendar, Tish’ah b’Av (the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av). According to tradition, many of the tragedies in world and Jewish history happened on this date, including the destruction of both Temples, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and, according to some, even the outbreak of World War One. To commemorate these sad events, Tish’ah b’Av was instituted as a day of mourning. Observed rituals include reciting special prayers set to mournful tunes, fasting and not wearing leather. (Despite the agony caused by much of modern footwear, wearing leather shoes was traditionally considered a sign of luxury and comfort, and therefore a pleasure to be eschewed as a mourner.)
Ramah was a 24/7 educational environment; each day presented a fresh opportunity to learn about Judaism and about ourselves. Tish’ah b’Av was certainly no exception. That night on the concrete basketball courts, in our circles surrounding small candles, we read the book of Eikhah (Lamentations), which describes the destruction of Jerusalem and its holy sites, and sang songs mourning the devastation. Both Eikhah and the songs provided vivid details of the carnage, providing an emotional portrait of a once-great city, now fallen.
But Eikhah was only the beginning. The next day, the regular schedule of meals, sports and classes was suspended, and we submerged ourselves in intense reflection. Tish’ah b’Av’s morning programming was always dedicated to remembering the destroyed Temples and centuries of persecution, from the Crusades to the Russian pogroms to the Holocaust. Discussion groups focused on events in Jewish history or featured films with a Holocaust theme. Afternoon programming was always less somber. Led by Israeli specialistsâ€”nature counselors, arts and crafts leaders, and music and dance teachersâ€”who spent their summers with us as living examples of the strength of contemporary Israel, activities were more cautiously optimistic, focusing on the future. Special presentations of Israeli song, dance and historical drama portrayed an Israel born in adversity that, against all odds, has managed to survive and thrive.
People of my generation live in a present where Israel has always existed; but it only takes a reflective dip into history to see the danger: In each of the Temple periods, the people of Israel assumed that they were safe within their circumstances. Because hey knew where they were, but forgot how they got there, the Temples were destroyed. According to the Eikhah account, young and old lay dead in the streets; women and men alike were slain unsparingly. Eikhah’s author, even after witnessing the carnage, still hopes that God will not cast him off forever and prays for the restoration of Israel and the Jewish people to a position of strength and securityâ€”the renewal of â€œour days as of old.â€
It is in this spirit of renewal that I want to mention another holiday, much more obscure even than this Ninth Day of Av, and much more gleeful in spirit. Whereas Tish’ah B’Av is all about the gloom and mournful memory, Tu B’Av, the 15th of Av, is a day that celebrates life and love. According to MyJewishLearning : â€œOriginally a post-biblical day of joy, it served as a matchmaking day for unmarried women in the second Temple period (before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.).â€ As somber as Tish’ah B’Av is, this holiday is its non-evil opposite twin: sassy, lighthearted and centered on helping people make romantic connections. Initially, I wondered why that holiday never got a mention in camp, but then I realized that with hormone-ridden teenagers, it was educationally easier to embrace the somber and try to gloss over anything that might be construed as a religiously sanctioned hookup day (or as we undoubtedly would have called it, “Yom Hookup)”. Still, the knowledge that Judaism is a religion that is about more than the commemoration of sorrowful events, that there is hope of future joy and revelry, might not have been a bad lesson to learn.
At camp we became aware that what we know is not always what was. We also projected that what we know today is not always what will be tomorrow. Modern Israel has its own set of problems, conflicts caused by the same forces that contributed to its creation: the religious fervor of pilgrims from many religions, the existential desperation of persecuted Jews searching for a homeland, dedication to the Zionist ideal, internal conflict over Jewish identity and continuity in tandem with national pride in the concept of a uniquely Jewish state.
Those of us who pray plead to unseen sources for strength and unity. We ask for the physical and emotional ability to continue, amid security alerts of every conceivable color and vague and unspecific, yet looming, threats. We have all seen the ravages of warâ€”in London, Washington, DC, New York, Spain, and Iraq, among other places. To picture desecration in contemporary Jerusalem unfortunately takes no imagination: it only takes CNN.
Safety is both relative and fleeting; a lasting peace cane seem as elusive, perhaps, as a soul mate. But in this summer season of uncertainty, we can look to the month of Av and its yin-yang juxtaposed holidays for hope: where there’s grief, there will one day be joy. And with a dual awareness of both our history and our present, we persist in a hope that God will renew our days as of old.
(For another piece I wrote about Tish’ah B’Av, feel free to visit “Sole Searching,” my column at Generation J: “Fasting in Paradise.”)