Shaya Cohen -


Terror In Our Souls

Do you remember when, as a child you were separated from your parents in a busy place? The bottom falls out of your world. All of a sudden, there is nothing except sheer, abject, panic.

My eyes fail with tears, my insides churn; my liver spills on the ground at the shattering of my people (Lamentations 1:11)

Your pulse races, vision blurs, and all you can think of is the enormous hole in your world. There is no rationality to it, no calm and collected reflection on how, surely, you will find your mother or father, or on how the world is not that bad. All we have is all-consuming terror.

Gone is my strength and my expectation from G-d. (2:18)

This is how the Ninth of Av feels to the Jewish people. We cry out, “How!?” How, on this day, were the First and the Second Temples destroyed? How did the Spanish Inquisition or the Holocaust happen?

But the Ninth of Av is not about the destruction of buildings or temples or even the deaths of our people – not really. The Ninth of Av is about that gaping void in our hearts when we, like that panic-stricken child in a mall, feel that the one person we have relied upon at all times, the person who has always been there for us has, in fact, abandoned us. We are all alone.

Alas! She sits in solitude… There is no one to comfort her (1: 1, 9)

Today we connect with how it feels to be abandoned. Because we need to be reminded of that feeling. We need to know what it tastes like.

The Ninth of Av is not mandated by G-d in the Torah. The seminal Ninth of Av was when the spies returned from Canaan and lost their courage, lost their faith in G-d’s support. As @SonofSpengler wrote:

According to Jewish tradition, the Israelites received a second punishment that night as well. “You weep for no reason,” the Talmud (BT Sanhedrin 104b) relates God saying, “so I will fix this as a night of weeping for you, for the generations.”

Measure for measure. We did not hold troth with G-d, and so he was not there for us. This is the theme of the Ninth of Av: “We had it coming.”

Jerusalem sinned greatly; she has therefore become a wanderer (1:8)

The story of the Jewish people and G-d is a love story, a story of a relationship for which our closest analog is marriage. Parents may love their children unconditionally. But the G-d of the Ninth of Av is not our father: he is a wife who burns with the wrath of discovering that her beloved has been unfaithful.

While it may (and should!) be difficult to imagine the monstrosity of a parent murdering their own children, but it is not difficult at all to imagine a wife who, discovering her husband has been unfaithful, pulls a knife or a gun and murders him with a rage that matches the intensity of her previous love.

He burned through Jacob like a flaming fire, consuming on all sides. (2:3)

The Lord became like an enemy. He consumed Israel: He consumed all her citadels, He destroyed its fortresses. (2:5)

Reading Lamentations leaves us with an inescapable conclusion: G-d’s love is not unconditional. We have words to speak and deeds to do that require the courage of our convictions, the ability to overcome our fears. Because unlike the child in the mall, we Jews are all too aware that when G-d seemingly abandons us, and we are left all alone, it may be our fault.

All my enemies heard of my plight and rejoiced, for it was You who did it. (1:21)

We may rationalize our plight all we like – and we often do just that – but the fact remains that in this world, it is we who are responsible for our lives, for the lives of others, and even for dealing with evil as and when we find it. We do not get to rely on a deus ex machina to get us out of any situation in which we may find ourselves. When evil emerges, it is our task, as G-d’s emissaries, to do battle. We do not have the option of merely quitting – that way, the way of those who lost their nerve at the prospect of claiming Israel as the national birthright, is what created the Ninth of Av as a national day of mourning for all time. No. As long as we draw breath, we must struggle.

The joke is told of an announcement from heaven that in 6 months, the world will be entirely submerged in water:

The various religious leaders go on worldwide television.

The leader of Buddhism pleads with everyone to become a Buddhist; that way, they will at least find salvation in heaven.

The Pope goes on television and entreats the audience, “It is still not too late to accept Jesus!” he cries.

The Chief Rabbi of Israel approaches the podium…stands silent for what seems to be an eternity…looks directly into the lens of the center camera and slowly but solemnly states, “My people”…he pauses once again and continues…”We have six months to learn to live under water”…

From the Jewish perspective, this is how we have survived 2,000 years of exile, of always being strangers in a strange land. When we are unfaithful, G-d is angry. But we resolve to do better:

Let us search and examine our ways and return to Hashem. (3:40)

Nevertheless, it is a terrifying thing to realize that G-d is not, as a father or a mother might, going to take care of us no matter what we may do. Our relationship is a partnership, a marriage. And marriages rely on fidelity and trust and growth, the desire to always grow into the person that our spouse wants to love. It means that we always have to make an effort, or the love dies:

I called on your name, G-d, from the depths of the pit. (3:56)

This is a much harder burden than merely being a child. The road is uncertain and challenging.

Nevertheless, like that child in the mall, the reality is that, however dire the situation, however awful and dark the world has suddenly become, it usually is not quite as bad as it first seemed. Which is why the Ninth of Av is not the whole year round.

Yet this I bear in mind; therefore I still hope: G-d’s kindness surely has not ended, nor are his mercies exhausted. (3:21)

Today we mourn, and cry in fear and loss, and shake with the terror.

Hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became food when the daughter of my people was shattered. (4:10)

And then, tomorrow, we will get up, and get back to the work of building our marriage with G-d.

Comments are welcome!

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