D’var Torah – 9 August 2019

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 15 August 2019

I think it’s Chabad who define ‘coincidence’ as “God’s way of saying hello.” I’ll give it to them – it’s cute and clever, but that’s all. But I shouldn’t pooh-pooh coincidence because this is the week for Jewish coincidences.

Tomorrow evening is Tisha b’Av, the 9th of Av, the Black Fast of the Jewish Calendar. On Tisha b’Av the First and Second Temples were destroyed; and on Tisha b’Av in 1492, the edict expelling the Jews from Spain came into force. In other words, 3 events separated by a mere, a mere, 2178 years, coincidentally happened on the same day. I guess Chabad would say “how else do you explain it?”

Here’s another coincidence. Tisha b’Av always falls on the same day of the week as Seder night. Tomorrow we read Devarim, the first sidra of the book of Deuteronomy; next week Va’etchanan. Tisha b’Av always falls in the week between those two sidrot. The question of the Wise Child in the Haggadah comes from the book of Deuteronomy – you guessed it, from sidra Va’etchanan. Coincidence? the hand of God at work here? Not really – surely, just the way the calendar works out. The question of the Wise Child? I’m positive that whoever wrote that bit of the Haggadah didn’t say “I need a question the Wise One can ask. I bet there’s one in the sidra we read on the Shabbat after Tisha b’Av.”

But here’s another. On Tisha b’Av we read the Biblical book of Lamentations – a series of doleful laments about the destruction of the First Temple and the exile to Babylonia. The traditional liturgy also has kinot, dirge-like poems speaking of Jewish tragedy and destruction. One from the Sephardi tradition has the refrain “mah nishtanah halayla hazeh mikol haleilot.” Now there’s no way somebody writing a Jewish poem can put that in as a refrain and think the reader won’t, without thinking, connect it with Pesach. Whatever else is going on, that ain’t no coincidence!

How can Pesach and Tisha b’Av possibly be connected? Pesach is about beginnings: the beginning of freedom. The Exodus is the event which creates a people: a group with a shared past, a common present and a joint future.

Tisha b’Av is the diametric opposite. It’s everything Pesach is not. If Pesach speaks about freedom and new beginnings, Tisha b’Av is about loss of liberty and identity, loss of any future.

So there’s a line: Pesach at one end, Tisha b’Av the other; good things at one end; negative at the other.

All those coincidences of date are one thing. But putting mah nishtanah into a Tisha b’Av lament, that’s something else altogether. It’s so Jewish! For it presents us with the choice, it poses a question.

The Book of Lamentations in Hebrew is Eichah. It begins “Eichah, How?…” “How does Jerusalem sit solitary?” Eichah is only found three times in the whole Tenach. The book of Lamentations and then twice tomorrow: once in our sidra, once in the haphtarah. But the same word with different vowels, is found once more. Adam and Eve have eaten the fruit and, ashamed, have hidden. God calls to Adam and says not Eichah but Ayeka “where are you?”

And that may be the question Tisha b’Av poses to us: Ayeka? Where are you on that line connecting Pesach and Tisha b’Av? Closer to the Pesach end? Do you positively affirm Jewish life or are you preoccupied with the negative?

Given what’s been happening in the past couple of years, it’s not easy to answer affirmatively.

But what option does our history give us?