Acknowledging suffering

Rachel at Velveteen Rabbi is a Jewish woman who cares deeply about the traditions of her faith and its continuing relevance for seekers of God in this postmodern age. Today is Tisha B’Av, a name I remember from an old Alan Sherman song parody but never actually understood, until now.

In her post on Wrestling with 9 Av, Rachel explains that this day is intended as a time of sorrow and reflection by the Jewish people. It commemorates the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BC, and yet again by the Romans in 70 AD. Both events occurred on the same date, the 9th day of the month of Av; both events are symbolic of the judgment of God and the suffering of his people.

I have a tendency to want to universalize the day’s particular commemoration of suffering; I’m more comfortable mourning the broken world in general, our sorrowful distance from God, than I am mourning the destruction of the Temples all those centuries ago. … One reason for my discomfort is that, while I acknowledge that the destruction of each Temple was a source of tremendous suffering in its time, I think they were necessary in order for us to move beyond a site-specific relationship with holiness and with God. The destruction of the Temple enabled the shift from sacrificial Judaism to prayer- and study-based Judaism…

In Christianity, we commemorate the passion and suffering of Jesus, but we have no formal time to observe the individual and corporate suffering of the church, nor a time set aside to consider the suffering of the world. In the first three centuries of Christianity, thousands of faithful men and women were summarily executed, often after being tortured, by the Romans, who viewed Christians as members of a dangerous pagan cult. Christians in many parts of the modern world also face punishment and death because of their faith.

Rachel rightly points out that apart from the suffering of religious people for reasons related to their beliefs and their spiritual identity, there are many millions more who suffer because of the cruelties of life and the inhumane treatment we mete out on one another.

Sometimes, I think we Christians become so caught up in our celebration of the wonderful blessings of grace and redemption that we turn a deaf ear to the suffering of the world around us. We western Christians, in particular, are so safe, secure and comfortable in our wealth that we have lost the ability to empathize with those in the world who are struggling to survive, even those close by, in our own cities, in our own neighborhoods.

Perhaps Christians should adopt the 9th of Av as a day of mourning for our own callousness, our own insensitivity, our own complicity in the suffering of others, as well as our failure to do all that we can to alleviate suffering. And perhaps it is also a good day to remember that even in the 21st century, many around the world still pay dearly for their decision to walk with God.

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  1. I’m moved that you (and others) have found such resonance in my Tisha b’Av post. It truly is a difficult holiday for me, but this year at least I feel something good has come out of my wrestle with it — all of these ideas, blog posts, conversations.

    Engaging with the suffering of the world is so difficult. (Sounds trite. The words don’t do the feelings justice.) I know a lot of good people who just can’t face human suffering. I’m that way sometimes, too. It seems so vast…! But there’s a saying in Pirke Avot, a collection of Rabbinic sayings and wisdom, which translates to, “It is not incumbent upon us to finish the task, but neither are we free to desist from beginning it.” That’s how I try to approach the broken (some might say “fallen”) world: we can’t fix it, but we’re obligated to begin to try.

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