Global Jewish Reflections | The Value of Public Grief: Tisha B’Av and the COVID-19 Pandemic

In this reflection, cantorial student Sam Rosen discusses the notion of "public grief" and how his travels with JDC Entwine have deepened his understanding of Tisha B'Av.

By Sam Rosen - HUC-JIR Cantorial Student | July 16, 2021

Sam Rosen leads services in the Sanctuary at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST) in New York City.

Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.

The Jewish calendar is designed to let us express the most intense human emotions: ecstasy and love, fear and guilt, sadness and grief. At its core, Tisha B’Av —the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av — is about expressing our grief over the loss of the Jerusalem Temples. Over generations, Tisha B’Av has absorbed other tragedies, too — becoming a catch-all day of Jewish communal mourning. Traditionally, we say kinnot (Hebrew elegies) and chant Eicha (the Book of Lamentations) in special trope (biblical cantillation). Beyond the cerebral, Tisha B’Av also includes a fast from our physical sources of sustenance: food and drink.

Sam Rosen (second from top) with young Jewish professionals in Mumbai, India.

The day also challenges us to take on the unusual idea of an impersonal grief: We are required to mourn. Our synagogues — spaces that are usually centers of joy and celebration — adopt a more solemn tone. On Tisha B’Av, we gather in the evening under candlelight, sitting on the floor, if able. In order to heal, we must lament

This year, Tisha B’Av is approaching right as we emerge in earnest from a plague that ruptured our society completely. For the United States, the loss of over 600,000 souls to COVID-19 is a collective grief of biblical proportions. Psalm 137, traditionally chanted at Tisha B’Av, asks: “Eich nashir et shir Adonai al admat neichar? (How can we sing a song of the Eternal on unknown land?)”Our country and our world are moving from one stage of pandemic to the next — from lockdown and emergency to reopening and rebirth.

As I consider this new world, I’m grateful for the JDC Entwine trips I have attended over the last few years. As a Weitzman-JDC Fellow during my first two years at HUC-JIR, I visited Jewish communities in Lithuania and Belarus, and later, traveled to India. Beyond my neighborhood, city, state, and country is a world full of life and also full of its own unique grief. In particular, my thoughts turn to India, a country I have been connected to for many years, and which I visited in May 2019. If the pandemic has confirmed anything, it’s that virtual connection offers only a certain level of intimacy and understanding. The opportunity to know, to sing with, to dance with, and to pray with other human beings, especially those in different places, is a precious gift.

Sam, far left, with a resident of the JDC-supported Bayiti old-age home in Mumbai, India.

In India, Entwine introduced me to a Jewish community that in many ways resembled my own. As we got to know each other, our similarities grew, at the same time as we began to better understand and respect our differences. It turns out young Jews from Mumbai and Reform clergy students from the U.S. know many of the same songs. We also have many of the same fears. Our respective Jewish communities are entwined not only with each other, but with our surrounding cultures. As we learned about each other, we learned about ourselves. We sang together, wedanced together, and we prayed together.

But as Jews, we share commonalities not only across space, but across time. The destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD was a total rupture in Jewish history. It also set the stage for Rabbinic Judaism. From the temple’s demolished walls came the ideals and virtues of modern Judaism. Out of destruction emerged Yavneh, a vibrant center of Jewish learning.

What will come after this last year-and-a-half?

The experience of walking into a space dedicated to general communal mourning can be a confusing one. In Jewish communities throughout history, the clouds of grief slowly loomed in the air during the “Three Weeks” leading up to the 9th of Av. As the community approached this most solemn of days, the melancholy of the calendar was already palpable; the journey to grief’s peak was gradual

But most progressive Jews no longer live in geographically close-knit communities. Instead of gradually facing our deep grief, we feel it suddenly — the moment we enter the synagogue to hear Eicha (the Book of Lamentations). At my local congregation — Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST) in New York City — we set the words of “Lecha Dodi” to the tune of “Eli Tziyon,” a traditional piyyut (liturgical poem) for TishaB’Av. Though not all of us live close together, we use the same tools at our disposal — such as music — to connect us to this period of mourning. Music has the power to remind us of why we must remember each year. Our Judaism can only really move and shake us when we allow ourselves to be uncomfortable.

Our Judaism can only really move and shake us when we allow ourselves to be uncomfortable. 

Tisha B’Av is not a day of mourning on which we list names. Its purpose is to mourn an era, to mourn what was: another way of life. This holiday is the ultimate lesson in empathy. In our attempt to feel a sadness that transcends personal loss, we reach for a universal empathy that is rarely attained in our society today. How will we emerge as a society from the great losses of this pandemic? By taking on a portion of public grief, the memories of those lost will begin to become blessings.

The Book of Lamentations closes with the following words, which we traditionally say two times: 

“Hashiveinu Adonai eilecha v’nashuva. Chadeish yameinu k’kedem.

Return us to you, Eternal, and we shall return. Renew our days as of old.”

May each of us ask ourselves what we can do to renew our society, and enrich and improve upon it as the moment begs. 

Sam Rosen is a rising 5th-year student in the Cantorial Ordination program at the HUC-JIR Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music. Raised in Sugar Land, Texas, Sam completed Bachelor’s degrees in Music (Ethnomusicology) and Jewish Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and holds a Master’s degree in Jewish History from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS). Sam is beginning his second year serving as the Cantorial Intern at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), the LGBTQ+ synagogue of New York.

As a participant in the second cohort of the JDC-Weitzman Fellowship at HUC-JIR, he experienced the power of Jewish peoplehood in action, visiting Jewish communities in Lithuania, Belarus, and India.

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