Prayer

Esh Tukad: A Lament for Tisha b’Av

About Tisha b’Av

Tisha b’Av fascinates me. It is the saddest day of the Jewish year, reliving the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the horrors of the Crusades, and so many more awful moments in Jewish history. And yet, in responding to those experiences of devastation, poets let sadness inspire creativity and beauty. Brokenness calls for repair, but also for reflection and expression.

About Eicha

The core text of Tisha b’Av is the biblical book Eicha (known in English as Lamentations). It consists of five poems, which in turn initiated millennia of poetic laments known as kinot (singular: kina). Each of these kinot reveals technical poetic brilliance. Even as they evoke brokenness, the sheer amount of reference to and quoting of biblical, midrashic, and talmudic texts reconstitutes in a way the continuity of Judaism. Amidst torn down buildings and terror, the poets still assert in form if not in content a line of faith and love running through Jewish history.

Esh Tukad (A Fire Burns)

Esh Tukad (A Fire Burns) is an anonymous poem that uses a simple structure. Each stanza consists of two lines, the first mentioning something wonderful and ending with “when I left Egypt”, and the second mentioning something awful and ending with “when I left Jerusalem”. The poet contrasts between the mythic ideal relationship between Israel and God following redemption from Egypt, and the ultimate alienation from the holiest space that represents that relationship.

Francisco Hayez, Destruction of Temple in Jerusalem

It is a long kina (you can read one full translation here). I’ll share just the first four stanzas, as translated by Tzvi Hirsch Weintraub in the Koren Kinot Masoret HaRav.

A fire burns within me as I recall,
When I left Egypt
I will invoke lamentations so that I will remember,
When I left Jerusalem.

Then Moses sang an unforgettable song,
When I left Egypt.
Whereas Jeremiah lamented and wailed a woeful wail,
When I left Jerusalem.

My House was founded and the divine cloud dwelled there,
When I left Egypt.
But God’s wrath descended upon me like a cloud,
When I left Jerusalem.

The waves of the sea raised themselves and stood erect like a wall,
When I left Egypt.
The foe flooded me, overflowing my head,
When I left Jerusalem.

Pain: A Study in Contrasts

A fire burns within me… What fire is this? Perhaps the fire of memory itself, warming with nostalgia and burning with pain. Being able to remember past wonderment and joy can contrast so painfully with present woes, but it can also serve as a paradigm for return, for teshuva.

The parallels are haunting: Moses singing the Song at the Sea while Jeremiah wails in sorrow over the downfall, a cloud representing both the divine presence and divine wrath, water parting miraculously to allow for safety while enemies overwhelm and begin metaphorically drowning the poet. Why make the pain worse by contrasting it with how good things used to be?

Leaving Jerusalem signifies defeat of the highest order. People suffer and die, communities shatter, symbols break, stories lose their coherence.

Leaving Egypt, however, is not the opposite experience. It is not the height of prosperity or success, but the moment of breaking through the darkness into a new freedom. To understand what it means to leave Egypt, one must understand suffering, one must spend time feeling powerless, and then one must cry out. And in that crying out, God responds. The contrast in this poem is not simply a nostalgia for a long-gone past. It is a cycle of success, then failure, brokenness, then mourning, crying out for change, and then finding unexpectedly a new situation of freedom.

Hope

The hope is not just for freedom, it is not just for success, it is not just to give voice to the howling speechless sorrow. It is to hope to become, once again, a community of holy possibility. Every year, on Tisha b’Av, we confront the continual recurrence of brokenness and we are forced to leave our hollow Jerusalems where we hide. 

Esh Tukad concludes:

The Torah and its message and precious vessels,
When I left Egypt.
Happiness and joy; gone are sorrow and sighing,
When I return to Jerusalem.

Perhaps this year, we can return to a truly holy Jerusalem, built on clarity, courage, and kindness.

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