The Prophet Jeremiah, lived during the destruction by the Babylonians of Solomon’s Temple, and served as the Jews’ chief consoler as they were being exiled out of Jerusalem. Jeremiah’s narrative describing the devastation to the Jews and the barbarism of the Babylonians is recorded in the Biblical book of Lamentations. One of the most unspeakable and jarring images provided by Jeremiah can be found in the second chapter: “Behold, O Lord, and consider to whom you have done this. Shall the women eat their fruit, their cherished babies? Shall the priest and the prophet be slain in the sanctuary of the Lord?” (Lamentations 2:20).

The 17th of the kinnot (elegies), read on Tisha b’Av morning, addresses this disturbing image. Each stanza ends with the Hebrew “a’le’lay li,” woe is me, a quote from the tragic epistle of Job (10:15). The phrase describes the ravishing hunger and degradation of the Jewish people, which was a consequence of the Babylonian siege and seizure of Jerusalem. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who popularized explaining the kinnot on Tisha b’Av day, rather than just reciting them by rote, strongly suggested reading this elegy in English. Rabbi Soloveitchik would usually share a Holocaust story at this time as well.

Rabbi Yisrael Zev Gustman (1908-1991), a towering Lithuanian scholar in pre-war Europe, survived the Nazi onslaught and rebuilt his shattered life in Israel. Rabbi Gustman once commented, “I witnessed in the Vilna Ghetto all of the atrocities mentioned in the Tisha b’Av kinnot.” The Gustman’s only son, Meir’el, six at the time, was murdered before their eyes. Rabbi Gustman recalls seeing in the ghetto, a starving elderly woman lying in the filthy street. As he approached, he was shocked to learn that the woman was none other than the widow of the famed Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, the leading Torah scholar of pre-Holocaust Europe, who had died earlier in 1940. This woman was royalty in the enormous Vilna Jewish community. She was so sick, that she was unable to consume the carrot that Rabbi Gustman gave her, until he first chewed it for her.

Woe is me. Woe is us!

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