On August 6, the 60th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima, I spoke to about 400 religious peace activists near the nuclear-weapons test site in Nevada. We were preparing to be arrested en masse for crossing the test-site boundary to call for the abolition of all nuclear weapons.

I began by chanting these words in a mournful melody:

Alas!--How lonely sits the city,
That was once full of people!
Our enemies have opened their mouths
Wide against us.

Terror and the pit are come upon us,
Desolation and destruction.
My eyes fill with tears,
My innards burn

My priests and my elders
Have perished in the city
As they searched for food to stay alive.

Outside the sword deals death;
Indoors, the plague.
God sent fire from above,
Down into my very bones.

My liver is poured out upon the earth,
For the brokenness of my beloved people;
She weeps sore in the night,
Her tears fall on her cheeks.

The tongue of the suckling cleaves
To the roof of his mouth in thirst;
Small children plead for bread,
And no one breaks it for them.

The young and the old lie
On the ground in the streets.
We are become orphans and fatherless.
Our skin is hot like an oven.

For these things I weep.
My eye, my eye pours water.
Behold, and see
If there be any agony like my agony.
May this never befall you,

All you who cross by this way!
Please hear, all you peoples; please see my pain;
Remember my affliction, my anguish!

Were these words written about Hiroshima or Nagasaki? No, they were written about 2500 years ago, mourning the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple by the Babylonian Empire. They are from the Book of Lamentations, called in Hebrew Eicha, and they are read in Jewish practice on Tisha B'Av, the ninth day of the mid-summer month of Av, when Jews recall the Destruction of one Temple by the Babylonians and another by the Roman Empire.

Is it a coincidence that the dates are so close together?
Read more on page 2 >>

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  • August 6 (and August 9, the day of Nagasaki's destruction) always come close to Tisha B'Av, and in many years (including 1946 and 1995, the first and fiftieth anniversaries) have actually coincided with it.

    Is this mere accident? The ancient rabbis might not have thought so. They taught that the Temples were a microcosm of the whole world. They asked when the first lamentation, the first "Eicha," came into the world--and they said it was in the Garden of Eden when God cried out to Adam and Eve, "Ayyeka, Where are you?!" (The consonants of the two Hebrew words are the same; only the vowels differ.)

    So they understood that Tisha B'Av is not only an event in Jewish but also in universal history. The Rabbis could have treated the destruction of the Temples as (merely) a military defeat imposed by the Babylonian and Roman armies. Instead, they saw this destruction as a cosmic shattering, displacing God's own Self--and saw the military destruction as rooted in the exilic condition of all humanity.

    Today the whole earth is threatened by nuclear weapons, by the onrushing climate crisis of global scorching, and possibly by other tools of overweening arrogance. It is the same arrogance involved in the collapse of Eden's garden of delight.

    But all is not necessarily lost. According to Jewish tradition, Mashiach--the Messiah--was born on Tisha B Av. Born--but not revealed. We must open our eyes, our ears, our hearts, to grow the newborn into a full life.

    From the worst destruction can arise higher, deeper consciousness. From the worst violence can emerge a new commitment to bring the Days of Peace and Justice.

    The disaster of the bomb momentarily awoke the world, all peoples, in the great flash of destruction. It is still, today, precisely the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and of the Marshall Islanders whose people have been riddled by cancer from H-bomb "tests," and the downwinders of Nevada, and those who live near the Hanford, Washington, nuclear-weapons factories, and the GIs who were used as guinea pigs to test the bomb's effects-that has awakened new generations to call for an end to nuclear weapons research, production, and testing.

    Preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons should become a major goal of U.S. policy--and that requires radical reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. After all, the U.S. and British bombs sparked the Soviet bomb; that sparked the French and Chinese bombs; the Chinese bomb sparked India's bomb; and India's sparked Pakistan's. Israel's fear of large Arab-state armies sparked the Israeli bomb, and Israel's bomb has sparked some wishes for a bomb in some nearby Arab and Muslim nations. Only the United States can reverse the nuclear chain reaction that has fueled global nuclear proliferation.

    Indeed, the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty requires the U.S. and other nuclear powers to do so--yet Washington has ignored and violated that part of the treaty, even as it furiously presses Iran to refrain from weaponizing its nuclear materials.

    If the U.S. seriously wants to forestall an Iranian bomb, it should be exploring how to create a nuclear-free Middle East, connected to a multilateral regional peace treaty that protects Israel and frees Palestine.

    A new commitment to bring the Days of Peace and Justice can emerge from the worst violence.

    But it is not automatic. We must choose.

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