Sunday, August 10, 2008

B'tzeiti M'imitzrayim/B'tzeitim M'irushalayim/ B'shuvi Lirushalayim

Al Eileh Ani Bochiya: For These I Cry - Thoughts on Tisha B'av 5768

Tisha B'av is a difficult day. While the aura of mourning may be difficult to grasp for those who may be unfamiliar with it, it is not easy even for someone like myself, who is fully immersed in the Jewish calendar.
It is an interesting idea to compare Pesach and Tisha B'av, both of which ask us, as 21st century Jews, to place ourselves in our ancestors shoes and imagine respecively, being redeemed from slavery in Egypt, and witnessing the destruction of two temples, as well as the other tragedies that have become associated with is day, inculding the Crusades, expulsion from Spain in 1492, Chelmincki pogroms in 1648-49, and the start of World War I in 1914, which eventually led to the Shoah.
Both Pesach and Tisha B'av are anticipated on the calendar. With Pesach, we are told to start preparing for the holiday 30 days prior to it [i.e., on Purim] (see Rashi to P'sachim 6a), which is pretty necessary for the cleaning and cooking to get done (or at least the planning for it). We also have 4 special shabbatot with their own maftir and haftarah readings, which anticipate this 'Season of our Freedom.'
Likewise, we begin to prepare for the somber nature of Tisha B'av three weeks prior with the fast of Shiva Asar B'tamuz, on which we mourn the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem in 70 CE, along with a number of other sad events. From that date, it is customary not to hold weddings, go to concerts, or have haircuts. Beginning on Rosh Chodesh Av, our joy is [further] decreased (Mishnah Ta'anit 4:6), and we customarily refrain from consuming meat and wine. However, despite this preparation, it is still difficult to go from a joyous shabbat to an intense 25 hours of mourning and reflection.
While I hope you appreciate the comparison which I described above between the most intense joy and intense sadness on our calendar, I really can't take credit for it. It is rather based on a stirring kinah (sad poem recited on Tisha B'av) whose refrain is the title of this post (When I left Egypt/When I Left Jerusalem/When I Return to Jerusalem) , written by Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra in 12th century Spain. I would like to provide the Hebrew text below (since the text is not as well known as it deserves to be), and then provide a bit of analysis and translation. [As a side note, this poem was known to me because it serves as one of the introductory pages to the Moss Haggadah, with each stanza framing a perpetual calendar for the first night of Pesach, which is always the same day of the week as the following Tisha B'av, thus another link between the two holidays.]

This stirring poem contains 22 couplets, each beginning with a letter of the Alef-Bet. What provides its beauty and haunting nature is that while the first line of each couplet begins with a joyous image of the Exodus from Egypt, it is immediately followed by a haunting image of the destruction and expulsion from Jerusalem both in 586 BC and 70 CE. May of the images in both categories are based on verses from the Tanach.
Here is translation of the first few stanzas:
A fire burned within me, as it rose in my heart - when I left Egypt.
And dirges I will raise up, so I will remember - when I left Jerusalem.
'And Moses sang,' an unforgotten song- When I left Egypt.
And Jeremiah lamented, and full of crying it was - when I left Jerusalem.
My house He established, and caused His presence to dwell within it - When I left Egypt.
And God's wrath came down upon me like a pillar of smoke - when I left Jerusalem.
One of the elements of this poem that I truly appreciate is Ibn Ezra's writing in first person. He attempts to embody the idea of B'chol Dor Vador -that in every generation one should see him or herself as if they left Egypt - and applies it to both the exodus and the destruction. The poet asks us to remember our highest point even when we are so low, part of the idea that we have at least some ability to control our national destiny. As well, it is stirring how such close comparidons werre found between the exodus and explusion, between songs of joy and songs of mourning, clouds of Divine protection and divine wrath.
Evoking another rabbinic custom, Ibn Ezra beautifully inserts a twist of hope at the end of the kinah, whose last stanza reads in the Ashkenazi tradition:
Torah and witnessing [at Sinai], and precious vessels - when I left Egypt.
Joy and gladness, and an end to tragedy and mourning - when I return to Jerusalem.

May we all merit to return to a Jerusalem of peace, whether to live or to visit, and may we be thanful for the rebuilding of Jerusalem that has occcured in our lifetime.


I wish to conclude with a short description of our Tisha B'av observance here at Ramah Nyack. After Seudah Shlisheet on Saturday night, which was augmented by a fuller menu of Lasanga and sweet potato pie, we moved in to the Beit Knesset, where the parochet (curtain) had already been removed from the Aron Kodesh. We had a short study session, folowed by the beginning of the maariv service recited without a tune. This section of the service was concluded with kaddish shalem and the blessing over the flame. We then walked outside and down a candlelit walkway to the grassy area, where we gatherd around low tables and read the book of eicha by candlelight. After the conclusion of maariv, we walked over to a blacktop area, where I sang as part of the 'tisha b'av choir' a series of sad songs as two Israels lit the word zachor (remember) on fire flanked by Israeli flags (a somewhat strange tradition, if you ask me). This was followed by a number of optional activities, from which I chose to attend a session led by my friend Michael on the midrashic compilation Eicha Rabbah.
This morning, we again davened outside on the grass, and I read the haftarah, recited in the melody of eicha except for the concluding verses.

Later this evening we will have a Mincha service, a movie and discussion, and Ma'ariv and Break-Fast.

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