Lamenting the gulf on Tisha B’av

LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Alas, this year on the Ninth of Av, Tisha B’Av, when we darken our mood and grieve our losses, should we add a lament for what has happened in the Gulf of Mexico?

On a day when we acknowledge by chanting kinot, laments, the Jews slain in wars, pogroms and all manner of persecution, should we now also acknowledge through this ancient form that the environment can kill Jews, too? Or kill our spirits, and those of our friends?

“We’re seeing already an increase in suspiciousness, arguing, domestic violence,” Dr. Howard Osofsky of Louisiana State University told NPR recently.

Each year on the Ninth of Av, we read a book that tells the story of disaster too well.

The Book of Lamentations, Eicha, named for its first word, “Alas,” which traditionally is chanted on Tisha B’Av (this year it falls on the night of July 19), speaks to the aftermath of violence and disaster.

“Lonely sits the city,” begins the five-chapter book that speaks to the fall of Jerusalem. Verse by verse it laments the loss “of all the precious things she had.”

Today, as we watch the spoiling beach by beach, we also lament the precious loss of life and community. Yet it’s not the fall of Jerusalem we are witnessing or the burning of the Talmud in medieval Paris.

So why lament? Should we cry over wasted hydrocarbons or the loss of shellfish many of us don’t even eat?

Does the oil need to ooze along JCC or synagogue floors to bring pain and tears? As the oil washes ashore on the gulf states, perhaps more than any other generation we know well that it’s our shore, too.

If our insatiable need for fuel helped to bring on the disaster, then to paraphrase Eicha, should we say, “Our sighs are many and our hearts are sick”?

Our poets have perfected the language of pain; it flows too easily into the events of the day. A new lament can be found in the old. In Eicha we find the verses that set a new Gulf lament spilling out: “You have made us filth and refuse” (3:45), the Gulf Eicha begins. Witnesses to an environment “laid waste without pity.” (2:2)

And as we watch on disaster cams the oil boiling up from deep under the sea, or witness the hopefully engineered attempts to stop the flow fail, the lament continues:

“Our steps were checked,
We could not walk in our squares.” (4:18)

A Gulf Eicha proclaims: “Let us lift up our hearts with our hands.” (3:41)

As we ask, what of the animals? As of the end of June, according to the National Wildlife Federation, 1065 birds, 51 mammals and 436 sea turtles have died from the oil.

We see them, blackened; what could be sadder now than these photos? And though these words were intended for us to examine human death and suffering, they fit here well enough:

“Because of this our hearts are sick,
Because of these our eyes are dimmed.” (5:17)

The oil-saturated animals call us out on our Talmudic concept of preventing the suffering of living beings, “tzar ba’alei chayim.”

Until faced with this disaster, like cartoon characters we have been living in a pineapple under the sea.

On this day of national Jewish mourning, when I usually have trouble finding something over which to mourn, to fast and not wear leather, I turn on the news and gone is the joy, my “dancing is turned into mourning.” (5:15)

“For your ruin is vast as the sea:
Who can heal you?” (2:13)

And then I view with alarm the maps that measure the spread of the slick, or grow confused at the calculations of just how much oil. As the BP spokesmen and politicians try to soothe my pain, I hear:

“The Lord has delivered me into the hands
Of those I cannot withstand.” (1:14)

And what to say of the role of corporate profits and maintenance shortcuts?

“All around me He has built
Misery and hardship.” (3:5)

While eating a fish dinner, I think of the fishermen who now spend their time fishing for oil, and the small businessmen who can no longer make their living from the sea and think:

“The old men are gone from the gate,
The young men from their music.”  (5:14)

“All her inhabitants sigh
As they search for bread.”  (1:11)

Speaking to the 11 men who lost their lives on the Deepwater Horizon explosion, this Gulf lament asks:
“Is there any agony like mine,
Which was dealt out to me…” (1:12)

“We get our bread at the peril of our lives …” (5:9)

Gulf Eicha ends with a drop of hope.

Searching online, I find that Avodah, The Jewish Service Corps in New Orleans has already placed a worker to be involved with disaster-related issues of mental health in the gulf.

While the relief wells are being drilled, Gulf Eicha suggests a prayer:

“I have called on your name of Lord,
From the depths of the Pit.
Hear my plea …” (3:55-56)

Let us come back;
Renew our days as of old.”  (5:21)

(Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. All translations are from the JPS Hebrew-English Tanach.)