How can we sing a song of our God on alien soil?

Dear Friends,

The past few weeks have been difficult here in South Africa, as they have been for almost everyone. We said goodbye to cherished friends, family members and congregants who were laid to eternal rest due to the pandemic. As we continue to make sense of the turmoil and disruption this crisis has caused, both close to home and to  society as a whole, I find myself – as I often do – turning to Jewish heritage and tradition to help find meaning in the world around me.

Last week, we marked the 17th day of the Jewish month of Tammuz, the beginning of three weeks of ritual mourning. These weeks follow a path that begins with this anniversary of the Babylonian breach of the gates of ancient Jerusalem and carries us until the anniversary of the burning of Solomon’s Temple and the start of the first exile. That date is marked, along with a great many other Jewish tragedies, including the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans and the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492,  by a fast on the 9th of Av, observed this year on July 30th.

I’m always struck by the liturgy of this period. The words of Psalm 137, By the Rivers of Babylon are exemplary for the profound mourning of our people’s loss:

There we sat,
Sat and wept,
As we thought of Zion…

How can we sing a song of our God on alien soil?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
Let my right-hand wither…

Still, as we read  Lamentations on Tisha B’Av, we find, even in the words of  sorrow, messages of hope and of the possibility of renewal. Even the fast itself is considered a Mo’ed, a  festival. For though it is a day of profound sadness, it is also a day of promise for a joyful future, as the prophet Zechariah assures the people it “shall become occasion for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah.” (Zech. 8:19)

These texts and our tradition hold all our emotions that feel so right for this  moment in our world.  We hold the sorrow of profound loss, we sit with  anxieties and fears in this time of transition, and still we find a way to  express our hope for the future.

We need to grieve. We need to name the anxiety and fear that comes with this crisis and we need to lift up hope – hope for what is possible, hope for a brighter future, hope for what we will build together in the years to come. And we need to do all these things at the same time.

I invite you to share your losses, your fears, and your hopes as we continue to walk through this crisis.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Adrian M Schell

By the Waters of Babylon, painting by Arthur Hacker, c. 1888
By the Waters of Babylon, painting by Arthur Hacker, c. 1888
(c) Rochdale Arts & Heritage Service; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

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