A few hours before Tisha b’Av began I was reflecting that the violence in the Middle East shows absolutely no signs of abating. Instead, it’s been getting worse–with Hezbollah shooting more than 200 rockets into Israel and Israel vowing to push deeper into Lebanon with ground troops. Some years I’ve had to move myself emotionally and spiritually into an appropriate place to observe Tisha b’Av and the death and destruction it commemorates; this year, sadly, I couldn’t find myself anywhere else.
I wrote last week that the disasters commemorated by Tisha b’Av have typically served as a source of reflection and introspection for the Jewish people. Unsurprisingly, both sides are firmly engaged in pointing fingers at the other rather than looking into themselves.
This is very easy to do–as someone who loves Israel, I naturally am horrified at the cross-border kidnapping of Israeli soldiers and constant barrage of missiles into Israel and can easily justify Israel’s taking action to defend its borders and its citizens. After all, if Canada were pledged to America’s destruction and were lobbing missiles into Maine, we’d certainly do something about it. The sad part is that two can play this game–or three, or six, or ten. I don’t for a minute accept Hezbollah’s arguments, yet this doesn’t change the fact that there are as many points of view to justify whatever position you like as there are positions, and each side feels the other is the aggressor. It’s so much easier to blame your problems on others.
In the middle of the book of Lamentations, which is chanted on Tisha b’Av, the poet’s lament pauses for an eyewitness account of the destruction of Jerusalem: “I am the man who has seen affliction because of the rod of God’s wrath.” (3:1) The entire third chapter is presented in the first person as the anguish and disbelief of a survivor of the devastation that accompanied the destruction of the Temple. It stands in stark contrast to the rest of the book, and in many congregations is chanted to its own distinctive melody.
In including this section, I believe the author of Lamentations is trying to convey the importance of recognizing the human dimension of disaster. We may try to understand the reasons or purposes that underlie the devastation–as the author of Lamentations certainly does–but any attempt to explain that ignores the human suffering at the core of experience is ultimately hollow.
As we fumble for our justifications and counter-justifications for the violence in the Middle East, let’s be sure not to get so caught up in our arguments and our ideologies that we miss the human suffering taking place before our eyes on both sides of the border.