Thursday, July 19, 2007

Tisha B'Av

Tisha B'Av is difficult for me.

It is not difficult in the way that it is supposed to be difficult. It is not that I am so overwhelmed by pain and grief that I sit in a kind of stupor, truly unhappy and saddened by our lot.

It is simply physically difficult. You are fasting, hungry and tired; you are crouched down on a cold floor trying to find a somewhat comfortable position in which to lean against a brick wall, which is impossible, this means that you stand up and squirm and sit down again on your stool or low chair and long for it to be chatzos so you can sit properly.

You try to pay attention to the kinnos but that, too, is difficult, because they are long and repetitive and many of them are simply lists of all the terrible things that have happened to us. Also, at least in my shul, they have speakers who talk about the kinnos before we actually get around to saying them. This means that I have to sit in this incredibly uncomfortable position, listen to a speech, try to keep up with everyone as they race through the Hebrew and simultaneously concentrate on the words, then begin this entire proccess all over again. It is not right of me and I admit that it is my own flaw, but after a time I simply wonder "How much longer?" and page through the machzor wondering how many more kinnos there are to say and how much longer davening will go on for. Because by that point, all I want is to be done, at which point I can go home and nurse my headache and perhaps go to sleep because I am feeling too sick to move.

It is not Tisha B'Av night that is difficult for me. Tisha B'Av night is filled with power. Megillas Eicha is haunting and beautiful. No, it is only the day.

So I have realized that it is best for me to admit that it is utterly impossible for me to concentrate upon every single kinnah and to feel pain based upon them. I simply cannot connect to the majority of them. I have realized over the years that there are particular kinnos to which I connect, but I have never really thought about why or even considered that there might be some common thread to them. This year, I was afforded an insight about myself by Yitz, who explained that I am a "story person." I had never really thought of it that way. It is true. I am a "story person." I understand the world through stories. And now, looking back on it, I am able to understand why these kinnot resonate with me, why I feel connected to them and why they move me to tears.

These are the Kinnot that truly move me:
    21. The martyrdom of the ten great Torah sages

    23. The brother and sister who were each sold as slaves, reunited because their masters desired to breed them together in order to create beautiful children, who spent the night weeping and bemoaning their fate and who died upon recognizing each other in the morning

    34. The tale of Zecharia, cruelly murdered, and the boiling blood that will not be appeased

And then Eilee Tzion.

The similarity in kinnos 21, 23 and 34 is that they all tell stories. They are not simply lists, lengthy descriptions of the terrible events that have befallen us, events that I cannot even comprehend. These instead focus upon particular characters, particular individuals. These kinnos discuss stories that happened to particular people. I am most connected to the pain of an individual. It is difficult for me to imagine or understand the pain of an entire community, the suffering of the collective. But the pain of the individual stands out to me and haunts me; it is that pain that forces me to feel connected, that pain that I can understand.

Those kinnot are particularly beautiful. They are descriptive but they are also character-driven. We are horrified by the princess who finds a particular sage to be handsome and therefore requests that he be spared, only for the executioner to flay off his skin (granted, that is not in this version of the kinnah, but we know the story.) We are deeply disturbed by the intensely graphic but intensely visual (and I am a very visual person) images of death. We can imagine the terrible irony of the brother and sister placed within the same room, each weeping bitterly about their fate, only to discover that they have been reunited when dawn breaks and light touches their faces. And then, how horrible to discover that they had the whole night to have spoken and consoled one another, but instead they had taken refuge in their private griefs! They could not bear this and fell upon each others' necks, weeping, only to die.

And Zecharia! That bubbling blood that will not be appeased, that desires vengeance and nothing but vengeance, so similar in nature to the idea of Abel's blood calling out to God! I have always been fascinated by the idea of Nevuzaraddan testing the blood to identify it and finding that the Jews have lied to him, that it is human blood, not the blood of an animal, and then sacrificing them until finally he (and note the irony of this!) tells Zacharia to be satisfied. He, the butcher, he, the murderer, declares that there must be a limit! And this is much more powerful than it would have been had it been a Jew who declared the same...

These images are all brilliantly developed and very real; I can envision them totally, when I close my eyes, I am there. I can see myself at that arena, watching as these men are cruelly butchered; I am within that darkened room when the first brilliant rays of light fall upon the siblings' faces; I see Nevuzaraddan laying up corpse after corpse until finally he, yes he of all people, tells God that it is enough; "is it your intention to annihilate the remainder of the captivity?"

The plight of the individual presses upon me because I can identify with the individual, and from there I can extrapolate and apply that pain to the entire community. But I cannot connect with a simple list or flowery language, with mere categorization; none of this touches me. For me, the meaning of Tisha B'Av is bound up in the stories, these stories that are painted in jewel-colors and seared onto my mind.

As for Eilee Tzion...Eilee Tzion is an entirely different matter. The very melody haunts me. The melody is haunting, eerie and awesome at once. I cannot hear Eilee Tzion without crying; it hurts to listen to that song. For me, the song means pain.

"Wail, O Zion and her cities
like a woman suffering from birth travail,
and like a maiden girded in sackcloth
[lamenting] for the husband of her youth..."

Can you see that? I can. I see the woman screaming out in pain, the young maiden wearily walking through the streets, garbed in sackcloth, her eyes dull and glazed with the pain of loss and the inability to understand.

For me, Eilee Tzion is a true lament; it is the lament of all laments. The song is pain; it is pain that is sanctified and made holy, pain offered to God in order to force him to answer. The melody is beautiful in a very dark way. I don't think I can truly explain to you how it affects me, but it does; it is perhaps the most powerful part of the day for me.

So. What can I say? I am not a very good Jew. If I were, I would be able to connect to all the kinnos and I wouldn't get tired and I wouldn't concentrate upon the fact that I am hungry and these lists are neverending and the floor is very uncomfortable and I don't want to have to listen to another speech. But I do. So I serve as I can, and for me, that means paying particular attention and focusing upon the particular prayers that move me and cause me to feel. I think this is the best approach for me at this point in time. Perhaps one day I will even be able to find meanings in the other poems, but it is difficult for me...


Anonymous said...

Find a perspn your age who succeeds in relating to all of the Kinnos, and I'd be exceedingly impressed. You don't have any personal weaknesses to lament here, I'm afraid

I'm the sort of person who loves Tisha B'av, mostly because I love the exercize of trying to perform avodas Hashem out of a different emotion from the normal everyday b'simcha approach. I love Yom Kippur even more, but that's just a personal quirk.

But at least on Yom Kippur, I connect to the tefilos better than on any other day. But on Tisha B'av, I really struggle. Thank G-d for the artscroll version of the Kinnos or else I probably wouldn't understand even the basic message of half of them bichlal. They're thickly poetic and laced with allusions that I can't catch.

If I had enough time to let the poetry absorb, then I'd probably love many more of them. But the other issue that since the kinnos take up some 200 pages, and most of the congregation hardly has the patience to go through them, the shul always reads them terribly quickly and then you don't have time to get any meaning out of it at all.

Once, I took park in a women's kinnos group, where we read selected kinnos line by line and internalized their meaning. That was really great.

But if there's no group doing kinnos, I always prefer to say them in shul rather than saying them at home, because I couldn't trust myself to actually go through them at home.

Except that I'm, without fail, always the only female in my shul for tisha b'av shacharis. And I really hate that awkward feeling of "they opened up the ezras nashim just for me." That's so annoying.

So Tisha B'av can be a difficult day to get into the mood. But for some reason I just love to find that if I sequester myself in my room for a few hours, inevitably I find myself at the point of tears for the loss of everything of which I am incapable of conceiving. It's really other-wroldly, and it's incredible how you can prompt the emotions, almost at will, and yet they can still be authentic.

That's my take on Tisha b'av.

Chana said...

This is my favorite Yom Kippur prayer.

"Like clay in the hands of the potter..."

It's a really beautiful poem.

Tobie said...

Oh please. Being a good jew is finding inspiration in words that you mutter at top speed, words that are written in a flowery style that really doesn't convey much emotion to a modern ear? I'd prefer to think not, since I prefer to think of myself as a good Jew.

Here's what I do in general: ditch the shul kinnot because they aren't so useful to me. I get a translated version and go home and sit on my floor and say them slowly to myself, first the ones with which I can connect, but trying others as well. I find that the ones about the Crusades, although not character driven, are chillingly real, and find that most of them, when you read the stories behind them, actually do affect me. The ones with lists of things we lost and so forth- somewhat less so, but sometimes I even just scan those in English and try to feel the loss- the horror of the sudden gaping emptiness that is meant to be conveyed. Don't 100% succeed, but usually I get something. If the kinnot aren't helping, I'll reread eicha.

Also, remember that the mitzva of Tisha B'av is not kinnot. The mitzva is crying, is pain, and it really makes no difference whatsoever how we get there.

Anonymous said...

What high expectations you have?-)
There is a new sefer from the Rav on kinos.

Anonymous said...

What about fasting on Tisha B'Av?? I find that it prevents me from concentrating on anything other than myself and how hungry I feel. I find myself counting down the hours and looking for things to do to help pass the time. For me, fasting seems completely counter-intuitive.

Ezzie said...

I don't think anyone can really connect to "all" the kinnos, or even a majority.

I do something similar to Tobie; even if I'm in shul, I'll sit far enough away that if I want to listen I can but if I don't I won't. (I prefer having them explain it, as do most people I know - at least it's not completely foreign that way.) Then I'll pick a few and read what I can about them, read the translations, think about them, then say them. You feel it a lot more.

FWIW, I think the four you mentioned are the ones most people connect to the best; I know I do.

Scraps said...

I also have a hard time connecting to most of the Kinnot. The past couple of years I've been going to shul for shacharit, and they go through each kinnah and explain it, which makes it a little easier to feel the emotions behind them. But you're right, the "story kinnot" are easiest to connect to.

Anonymous said...


I don't think you are "not a very good Jew" for not being to respond to all of the kinnot the same way. It is human nature to respond to some things more than others. With a communally-orientated religion like Judaism, there is always a degree of friction between what the community as a whole finds meaningful, and what each individual member finds meaningful. This can often be painful (I'm talking from personal experience), but it is unavoidable.

My way of getting through very long services (it also applies to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) is to concentrate hard on (a) essential prayers (shema, amidah etc.) (b) parts that are meaningful to me. During the parts that are less meaningful to me, I sometimes sit/stand for a few minutes quietly, reflecting on the meaning of the day and letting the atmosphere in shul move me emotionally, or I read things like the commentary in the Artscroll, things that will help make my davening more meaningful. Of course, sometimes - especially on Yom Kippur afternoon - I just need to stop for a few minutes, so I can concentrate better afterwards.


I used to think that fasting was counter-productive too. As well as feeling hungry, fasting often gives me a headache and makes me feel faint. However, during the last year, I haven't been able to fast for medical reasons. Even limiting myself to the bare minimum of plain essential foods like bread and water, it does introduce a small bit of pleasure into the day, making it much harder to maintain the appropriate frame of mind. It also makes it like every other day, not a special day.

Anonymous said...

Sounds VERY similiar to what my Tisha B'Av is like (actually, eerily so).

Rebecca said...

Wow. Great post, Chana.

And I agree with everyone else here. As we are taught in hilchos tefillah: It's better to say some tefillah with a little kavanah than a lot of tefillah with no kavanah. The same applies here. Yasher kochech on giving us this new insight into the kinnos. May we be zoche to see no more sad Tisha b'Avs.

Anonymous said...

I also love "V'hinei kachomer biyad hayotzer." I remember that when I was eleven or twelve, it was just about the only part of the service that really, really moved me, and I kept on flipping back to it to read it over and over again.

Matt said...

Well, for what it's worth, I'll tell you what my plan is for the morning of Tisha b'Av: as soon as the shul starts saying kinnos, I'm going to turn on my iPod, pop in my ear-buds, and listen to a few hours of shiurim from my Rebbi (and from the Rav) on kinnos, reciting each kinnah discussed both before and afterwards. It's better to get through two or three kinnos with understanding and emotion than two or three dozen with boredom and guilt.

Anonymous said...

I think the "bubbling blood" one was actually one of the hardest for me, because (1) my rabbi (and Artscroll) treats these legends so literally that they are a bit hard to take as the parables they were no doubt meant to be, and (2) the underlying idea that one murder 250 years ago justifies massacres makes Osama bin Laden look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.

This sort of thing is why I'm uncomfortable with, if not Orthodoxy, at least the Artscroll kind of Orthodoxy- the utter lack of selectivity in distinguishing parts of the tradition that can be accepted whole and the kinds that really need an explanation if they are to be used at all (e.g. "Not to be taken literally or used with heavy machinery").