Day Eight: 24 Tammuz
We can only imagine the horror of watching Jerusalem torn apart by its enemies, its buildings burning and its citizens ravaged. Witnesses to events see themselves as the eyes of history. They want future generations to feel the pain even without having seen the tragedy. It is a paradoxical challenge for us to mourn a past that we have never experienced. But, as creatures of history, the Jewish calendar calls upon us to relive such moments repeatedly.
Eikha offers us a glimpse from up close: “How is the gold become dim! How is the most fine gold changed! The hallowed stones are poured out at the top of every street” (Lam. 4:1). Every street corner of ancient Jerusalem was littered with the Temple’s pieces, its sacred gems. The finest of golden instruments used in ritual worship had been debased. Their worth was dulled because they could no longer be used to worship God. They became vessels valued only for their weight in gold, losing their religious significance.
The language of Eikha is powerful. It brings to mind media images of floods and fires where charred personal items of value are piled together, a tangle of memory, lost history and beauty. We may recall the residues of large scale tragedies summed up in the remains of a decimated wedding album or a torn love letter, piles of old shoes or a stack of winter coats. We hold on to these sacred gems that are spilled at every street corner because they are the last remaining pieces of an era – a place and time told in scattered fragments.
The detritus of exile and destruction is largely unrecorded and unremembered. In the rush to save oneself or to escape, things get left behind – objects that have meaning when life is safe but cannot always be taken along when life gets difficult. Jewish immigrants left behind homes, clothing, heirlooms. Maybe, if they were lucky, they brought a sewing machine to their new port of call so that they had a professional start in their next landing. Libraries have been broken apart or buried when their owners were forced to leave. Artwork and items of value were stolen and carted away to decorate someone else’s walls. Few Jews are lucky enough to have extensive family heirlooms because they simply couldn’t take anything with them. The gems are scattered and the gold dulled, with no one to polish it. If objects could speak they might tell powerful stories of travel and loss.
And yet, as the chapter in Eikha continues, it seems to change direction. Instead of remaining in the material realm of objects, the objects come to symbolize the people: “The precious sons of Zion, comparable to fine gold, how are they esteemed as earthen pitchers, the work of the hands of the potter!” (ibid. 4:2). Suddenly, the text defines what gold truly is for us. The real gold is not in the buildings but in the builders, the precious children of Zion who were decimated, shattered like simple earthenware thrown to the ground. Their worth as human beings was no longer valued. They were broken, their shards scattered everywhere.
The leaders of the community are compared to rubies and sapphires. And yet they too are “not recognized in the streets” (ibid. 4:8). Rashi makes the comparison complete: “Sacred stones are the children whose faces shine like precious jewels.”
Jewish history, like these open streets, is littered with the remains of buildings, objects and people no longer with us, the shining faces that we’ll never see, the dulled gold that is displaced and then disappears. As memory holders, we are obligated to honor the memory of loss by making space for the emptiness.
Kavana for the Day
We think of ourselves as descendants but not always as ancestors. One day, far into the future, we will be ancestors to family members we will never know. What objects of ours will tell our Jewish story for them? If you have no Jewish heirlooms, now may be a time to buy some items of ritual significance. They don’t need to be expensive; they just have to tell a piece of your narrative. And, in terms of ancestors, now is a great time to honor the memory of those no longer with us by either displaying special objects of the past, making a scrapbook, investigating your family tree with your children, or interviewing a family member. Make memory come alive. Be a witness. Tell your story.