My rendering of Lamentations 2, written and read for a Tisha B’Av vigil held at the Jerome Combs Detention Center, Kankakee, IL, August 11, 2019.
we are beyond humiliation
we incarcerate children without pity
we deport parents without a thought
and build systems that destroy families indiscriminately
now we truly know what it means to be dishonored
our so-called glorious past is now seen
for the sham that it was
the way of life we celebrate is but a privilege
for the few and the powerful
we can’t see that our own might
will be our downfall
we venerate leaders
who should be tried for their crimes
we never dared imagine a power
greater than our own
like so many before us
we conquered the land then drew borders
as a testament to our fear and dread
now we build higher walls
to keep out those who seek shelter
we built massive checkpoints
we lined up human beings
like cattle in cages
now children cry out for parents
who will never answer their calls
their voices echo endlessly
through the camps but there
is no one left to hear
we ask one another with bewilderment
have we ever seen such cruel violations
yet in truth we ourselves have inflicted
such cruelties on children here
and around the world
we sentence minors to life in prison without parole
we remain silent as a cruel occupation
abducts and imprisons children in military prisons
convicts them in military courts
and yet we dare to act surprised when
we hear news of children thrown into cages
at our southern border
our silence betrays us
these walls will soon encircle us all
soon there will be no one left
only a single mass of mourners
whispering broken hymns of lament
grieving what was lost
and what might have been
one day we will know the sorrow
of the dispossessed
we who never heard the cries of migrants
and their children will know what it means
to be uprooted detained and discarded
those who we scorned and abandoned
will bitterly welcome us to the world
of the dispossessed
the enemies we created
through our own fearful actions
will surely come back for us all
let us hope and pray
there is still time
let the cries of our children
pour into our hearts like water
the cries of any who have been forced
from their homes pursued
taken locked away sent away
anyone whose very lives are forbidden
let their cries compel us
to take down oppressive systems
built by the powerful to maintain
the power of the powerful
let their cries remind us
that there is a power yet greater
that comes from a place that knows no borders
no deportations no barrier walls no prisons
no guards no soldiers no ICE no police
a place where we no longer need to struggle because
justice gushes forth like a mighty stream flowing freely
from the sovereign beyond all sovereigns
we beseech you chadeish yameniu
renew our days
that we may build the world
that somehow still might be
kein yehi ratzon – may it be your will
and may it be ours’
ve’nomar and let us say
Lamentations, Chapter 1
1. Our home lies ravaged.
The glory it once knew
has always been a sham,
a hollow shell
masquerading as greatness.
The truth is now so very plain
for all the world to see.
2. Late into the night we weep
mourning for a past that never was.
No one comes to comfort,
for there is no comfort to be had.
3. There are no more friends,
no more enemies,
only this desolation and emptiness
from which we can no longer
4. For now we know
we’ve been in exile all along,
comfortable in our illusions
of homeland security
even as we wandered mindlessly
into dark and narrow places.
5. But now the roads are closed to us.
There is no safe passage,
in truth there never was.
We can only sigh in helplessness,
turn around, and walk away
from the place where we began.
6. The oppressed is now the oppressor,
and the oppressor, the oppressed.
We have no one left to blame,
no more battles to be won
no enemies to fight,
no terrorists to eradicate
once and for all.
7. Truly, all we once valued
were mere delusions.
Our strength was nothing but dread,
our might, our weakness,
our victories, celebrations of vanity
to avoid the awful truth
of our powerlessness.
8. How easy to point the finger of blame
so that we might avoid
our own culpability
in this destruction,
this ruin that has now
blown back upon us.
9. How deep the shame
that comes with this terrible knowledge.
How can we not have known
what others must have known
or seen what others must clearly have seen?
What must they think now
that we have sunk so low?
10. For we assumed a future of plenty,
presuming our prosperity
was somehow our entitlement.
But this plenitude was never ours to claim.
Now it is all gone
and our children face a future
of scarcity and want.
11. Please, when you pass us along the road
do not look away as we once did,
from the poor and wretched souls
crouching on street corners.
We do not seek your pity –
We only ask that you look
deep into our eyes and let our grief
sear into your soul.
12. May you never know the trembling
that goes deep into your bones,
to the core of all you once thought
was true and enduring
May you never turn a corner
only to be hurled down,
with no safety net to break your fall.
13. For so long we’ve been unable to feel
the hangman’s noose
that has slowly been tightening
around our throats.
We’ve learned how to live
never knowing that our very breath
has been slowly ebbing away.
14. All who we thought to be heroes
have betrayed and abandoned us.
The real heroes languish
in prisons and unmarked graves.
There is no one left
to save us now.
15. For all this and more do we weep:
For that which never was,
and that which might have been.
For our complacency and complicity,
our willful blindness,
our readiness to look away
from that which must be faced.
16. We are now beyond comfort.
We stumble endlessly
with only the desperate hope
that somewhere in this emptiness
we might still discover
a new way forward.
17. Is it possible that this way
was before us all along?
How easy, how effortless it was
to turn away, to go down this path
that has lead to our destruction,
to this pain that will never end.
18. My family, my friends,
my teachers, all are gone.
Those of us who supported one another
in faith and love
now fend for themselves.
Truly, there is no one left
for us to turn.
19. Thus we cry
into this this empty waste:
is there be a source of strength
that still hearkens to the pain
of those who have
nowhere to go?
20. Oh, move us from this place
of wretched misery,
the devastation we have wrought
and the guilt that spreads through us
like a plague.
21. We are ready to shoulder the blame,
to accept our responsibility.
We just don’t know
how to unburden ourselves
from this awful shame and loathing
that blocks the way forward.
22. For now it is all we can do
to send forth our pain
that it might somehow renew our days,
not as they were before,
but rather as they somehow
At our Tisha B’Av service last night, we read several contemporary poems alongside the traditional chanting of Lamentations. Here is one:
Try To Praise The Mutilated World
Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
– Adam Zagajewski (translation: Renata Gorczynski )
Your country is desolate; your cities are burned with fire; your land, strangers devour it in your presence, and it is desolate, as overthrown by floods. (Isaiah 1:6)
These opening verses from Isaiah, are part of the Haftarah portion for this Shabbat. It is the final of the so-called “Haftarot of Affliction” that precede Tisha B’Av – the most grief-stricken of Jewish festivals.
Like the Biblical book of Lamentations, our Haftarah is filled to overflowing with fierce divine judgement and and overwhelming sense of communal self-pity and shame:
Ah sinful nation! People laden with iniquity! Brood of evildoers! Depraved children! They have forsaken the Lord, Spurned the Holy One of Israel, Turned their backs (on God). (1:4)
Beginning next week, however, our Haftarah portions will offer messages not of affliction, but of healing and consolation. From this point on, these portions will guide us all the way into the High Holiday season itself. In a sense, the Jewish calendar is currently in a spiritual rhythm that moves us on a journey from pain to healing.
I particularly struck that unlike the book of Lamentations, which is essentially a litany of pain and shame, this week’s Haftarah actually offers a quintessentially prophetic call to justice:
Wash yourselves clean; put away your evil from before My eyes; cease to do wrong.
Learn to do good, seek justice; relieve the oppressed. Uphold the orphan’s rights; take up the widow’s cause. (Isaiah 1:16-17)
In other words, our present woes can be directly traced to our own acts of injustice. As I read these verses, I’m reminded of the oft-made observation that the strength of a society can only be judged by the extent to which it protects its weakest citizens. In much the same way, this week’s Haftarah teaches that our own vulnerability is irrevocably bound up with the most vulnerable members of our community.
As it turns out, the Haftarah for Yom Kippur comes from the book of Isaiah as well. I like to think of these two prophetic portions as “spiritual bookends” to this season. At the end of the Days of Awe, we will end with the same essential message with which we began – the way to healing and redemption is really quite simple:
No, this is the fast that I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of lawlessness; to let the oppressed go free and break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; to clothe when you see the naked, and never forget your own flesh (Isaiah 58:6-7).