Sometime in the years following the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE, a group of poets sat down to write a collection of mournful lamentations. Through their eyes, we see the ravaged city of Jerusalem as a bereaved and abandoned woman, her children dying of hunger on street corners, her maidens and youths murdered.
These dirges eventually formed the text for Tisha B’Av, a public day of mourning and fasting, commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples, as well as other tragedies throughout Jewish history.
As we become witnesses, in our own time, to the great catalogue of death and destruction – most recently in France, Belgium, Copenhagen, Tunisia, Iraq, Turkey, the United States and Syria, including the drowning of hundreds of refugees as they cross the perilous waters of the Mediterranean Sea – how do we prevent the hardening of our hearts?
How do we ensure that we do not become desensitised to terrorism and
Like the retelling of the Exodus from Egypt, Tisha B’Av became a vehicle
for memory – reliving the catastrophe of a people terrorised, tortured and forced into exile. Its imagery and language function like a hand-held camera, designed to show us and allowing us to hear every intimate detail of suffering, to evoke a sense of horror, sorrow, empathy and
And like the martyrology in the liturgy for Yom Kippur, or Yom HaShoah with its revisiting of the loss of six million, we relive again and again a people’s utter devastation and loss.
These texts and commemorations remind us of our own vulnerability and through the awareness of that susceptibility, our feelings are awakened and we hold on to our frail humanity.
Yet we are not left with the burden of unrelieved suffering of the present or past, for it is the repeated blows on the bruised body that leave the individual numb with terror and fright.
Yes, we are navigated through the darkness of despair and destruction, but the architects of our liturgy and poetry do not lose faith.
They are still prepared to affirm their faith in the loving kindness and infinite compassion of God and in so doing, to call upon our own humanity and compassion for the suffering of the world.
• Alexandra Wright is the senior rabbi of The Liberal Jewish Synagogue and co-chair of Liberal Judaism’s Rabbinic Conference