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Op-eds

Loss of a shul makes Tisha B’Av more meaningful

  • AvivaThurgood photo
It’s been eight months since the fire. Enough time for the pain to be less raw, enough time for me to be able to walk past our shul and not cry, yet the hurt still lingers.
by AVIVA THURGOOD | Aug 08, 2019

It catches me unawares. Shalva, our daughter, will mention that she misses the shul in a random moment while we’re reading Harry Potter together, and I have to catch my breath and give her a hug. It catches when I bump into a friend from Joburg or a patient, and they casually ask if the shul has been rebuilt yet, like it wasn’t as devastating as we thought, and everything would be back to normal by now. Unexpectedly, even as I write this, there are tears, and I realise that we are forever changed.

There is a line in Eicha (the book we read on Tisha B’Av) that never really made an impression on me before, but considering our experience, I read it with different eyes now. “He cut down in burning anger, all the dignity of Israel; he drew back his right hand in the presence of the enemy; he burned through Jacob like a flaming fire, consuming him on all sides.”

Now I can feel the heat of G-d’s anger, hear the crackling, and smell the smoke. I have a better understanding of the destruction that the prophet Yirmiyahu is describing.

Every Tisha B’Av, we should mourn as if the destruction happened in our time. We should try and understand what we have lost, and attempt to change ourselves so that we are worthy of the third temple being rebuilt and complete peace, finally, in our beloved Israel.

Dr Yael Ziegler points out that in the Megilla in Eicha, it’s deliberate that no names, dates, or specific events are mentioned. This way, it becomes an exploration for us throughout the ages in how to deal with pain and suffering, and how to find meaning and purpose in difficult times. It also helps us find ways to reconnect to G-d when he seems angry and distant.

A book that has always had a deep impact on my life is Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. A holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, he writes about his observations of the people around him, and the reasons he believes some people were able to survive while others weren’t. He writes, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms, to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

The holocaust is obviously an extreme example, but it’s our arrogance that makes us believe that we are ever truly in control of our lives. No matter what happens to us, it’s our choice how to respond that makes the difference. It’s the way we choose to lead our lives after a trauma, after the destruction of the temple, or the burning of our shul. It’s how we choose to respond that gives a terrible event meaning and purpose, or ensures that it remains just a traumatic event we have experienced.

The Megilla of Eicha has many themes, but two that stand out for me is the sense of loneliness described, and the fact that we repeatedly hear the words, ein menachem (there is no comfort). The Megilla begins with, “Alas, she sits in solitude! The city that was great with people has become like a widow … She weeps bitterly in the night, and the tear is on her cheek. She has no comforter.”

This poetic description of Jerusalem sitting with a single tear running down her cheek, no energy left in her to wipe it away, and no one around to do it, should remind us of the people who need our support, and who we often don’t remember. The blessing of being part of a community is that no one should ever feel alone. We should all be that person who wipes away the tears of others when needed. The destruction of the second temple was due to baseless hatred. We should be looking for opportunities to share baseless love.

We call the month of Av, Menachem Av. Menachem means comfort. Throughout Eicha, there are references to the fact that the pain and suffering experienced are so severe, Jerusalem and her people cannot find comfort. And yet I find it interesting that in contrast to this sense of hopelessness and devastation, Jerusalem is calling out to G-d begging him to “see her”.

At the time of our greatest disconnection from G-d, when children are exiled into slavery, dying in the streets, and a holy city is left in ruins, Jerusalem still calls out to G-d to see her seeking to reconnect to him. Through the chapters of Eicha, Yirmiyahu walks us through the universal emotions of pain and suffering, the human desire to give it meaning and understanding, and ultimately the journey of repentance, teshuva.

We end Eicha with, “Hashivaynu Hashem aylecha venashuva, chadesh yamaynu cekedem” (Bring us back to you, Hashem, and we shall return, renew our days as of old).”

Let’s use this Tisha B’Av as an opportunity to give meaning and purpose to the pain and suffering we have experienced individually, as a community, and as a nation. Let’s take the time to reconnect to each other, Hashem, and ourselves.

  • Aviva Thurgood teaches Eicha (the book we read in shul on Tisha B’Av) on behalf of The Academy of Jewish Thought and Learning in Cape Town.

1 Comment

  1. 1 Vacelia Goodman 10 Aug
    I feel that the Jews in South Africa have become very fragmented and feel like we are being FORCED to dump our Judaism  - whatever our religious observance  - to be acceptable in South Africa which is such a violent corrupt area and lacking of any tolerance to Jews; the elderly; disabled; ill and poor. There's such greed and jealousy here amongst most of the population that I can't see the ABUSE towards us diminish. B'H the Chief Rabbi will be able to assist us and lead us Jews away from all of this terrorism towards us. Hopefully this Comment will be passed on to someone in authority. I've found that where I stay if I say anything then I get threatened by most of the non-Jews and some Jews who've found that the African polygamous lifestyle suits them more than our code of Ethics. 

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