Passing a synagogue in Paris 200 years ago, Napoleon Bonaparte was mystified by the sound of wailing inside. Upon learning that the worshippers were mourning the destruction of the Jewish Temple 1800 years before, the astounded emperor declared that a nation that had mourned so long for a building its people had never seen would surely one day see it rebuilt.

To this day, Tisha b'Av, the ninth of Av, remains the saddest in the Hebrew year, when Jews everywhere remember how Titus and his legionnaires sacked and burnt to the ground their holy of holies. The tragedy is also recalled at the happiest moment in a Jew's life, his wedding, when reciting the words, "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem…" he crushes a glass underfoot.

On Tisha b'Av, Jews sit on the floor in darkened synagogues and read aloud the book of Lamentations. The words are sobering, even frightening, as they describe how a pitiless God trampled violently upon Zion, destroying city and temple, and scattering the inhabitants among the nations—the judgement of a righteous God on an unrighteous people. As they look back over the centuries, the Jews recall other catastrophes that befell them on Tisha b'Av: their expulsion from England in 1290 and from Spain on the same day 202 years later. How completely the prophecy was fulfilled: "When they fled and wandered, those among the nations said, 'They shall no longer dwell here'." (Lam 4:15)

But the words of this woeful lament do not leave the reader, and indeed do not leave Israel, in a state of abject hopelessness. Here and there, rays of light shine through, reminding Israel of the mercy and compassion of the Lord (3:22-24, 31-32).

And the book culminates in a prayer; a plea which on August 1 this year ascended to heaven from millions of Jews around the world: "Turn us back to You, O LORD, and we will be restored; renew our days as of old." (Lam 5:21) Is this the year when God will hear, and answer, this prayer? May it be so, for surely Jerusalem "has paid double for all her sins"?

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