Why we lament: a JCUA reflection on Tisha b’Av

Sara Sandmel Headshot

Sara Sandmel

by Sara Sandmel
JCUA summer intern

Tisha b’Av begins tonight, marking the end of a three week period of mourning on the Jewish calendar. We mourn, traditionally for the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem, both of which – according to the Jewish tradition – were destroyed on the ninth day of the month of Av. Most Jews who mark Tisha b’Av do so through a 24 hour fast and reading Lamentations (Eicha). Tisha b’Av is the most devastating day on the Jewish calendar; even the study of Torah is too joyous an occasion for this holiday.

For many Jews, including myself, Tisha b’Av falls through the cracks of the secular, school-based calendar, especially because it lacks any cheery songs that can easily fit into a Hebrew school curriculum. This year, though, for many reasons, I feel an urge to mourn together with my community, to allow myself to experience overwhelming pain and suffering of history. I feel this need, in a large part, because I hear cries of mourning and loss all around me. To prepare, I sat down and read Lamentations for the first time.

Lamentations begins with one question: Why? Why was the Temple destroyed? Why has our community been abandoned to suffer alone? Why do we deserve this fate?  Why does our enemy torment us? The author goes back and forth between a deep anger at God for allowing the destruction of their community and looking inward, asking “what did I  do wrong?”

The questions are striking and dramatic:  “He has broken my teeth with gravel stones, He has made me to wallow in ashes/and my soul is removed far off from peace, I forgot prosperity” (Lamentations 3:16-17). These words recall a deep, heart wrenching pain for a community, a home, that is withering around the feeling of a lost future. These questions, this mourning, is a constant story in the communities most affected by gun violence here in Chicago.

“They say to their mothers: ‘Where is corn and wine?’ when they swoon as the wounded in the broad places of the city, when their soul is poured out into their mothers’ bosom” (2:12).

There were over 200 shootings in Chicago, just in the month of July.

It doesn’t take much time looking at a map to see the patterns: this immanent threat of violence primarily affects communities already experiencing systemic racism and poverty. The communities most affected by this violence are also, without question, those most neglected by our city’s distribution of resources like education.

Getting acquainted with my own history of anguish helps me to hear and respond to the anguish of others. It helps me to identify pain, need and anger and to know that I can be a partner in harnessing that energy to build something better. To fight the systems that push people out, neglect them, foster violence and perpetuate racism.

Arise, cry out in the night, at the beginning of the watches; pour out thy heart like water… lift up thy hands toward God for the life of thy young children, that faint for hunger at the head of every street (2:19)

Lamentations and Tisha b’Av force us – like Passover – to walk in the shoes of our ancestors who experienced great trauma. It invites us to remember through poetry of despair and through physical deprivation, the pain and need that shaped our religion at its roots. And just as at Passover we are asked to open our doors to all who are hungry, this Tisha b’Av, I seek to open my eyes, my ears, and my heart too all who are suffering. Even more so, I will commit to give them my feet, listen to voices that cry out against systems of oppression and walk together towards something better.

There are obvious differences between the context of Lamentations and the mourning of Tisha b’Av and mourning in communities across Chicago experiencing violence, poverty and racism. But as a Jew, feeling the pain of a community suffer, searching as a community for answers, and moving together to rebuild still since the destruction of the Temple, I hear echoes of the past still today. And I feel, as I mourn, the others who mourn  around me. I hope as Tisha b’Av rolls into the new Jewish year that we can take  the time to begin imagining how we want ourselves and our world to be. Together, we can work together to fight the systems that continue to breed poverty, racism, and especially the tragic violence in our city.


Sara Sandmel just completed a summer internship at JCUA. Sara helped organize programs on immigration and gun violence during her internship, and also helped develop our strategy for membership and organizing.

► Learn more about our work by becoming a member.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: