When I was in college, I fell in love with the poetry of William Butler Yeats. A complicated artist with a complicated life, and certainly not a role-model for personal behavior, the poetry he wrote as he watched the world go mad—from World War I to the Irish fighting for its independence and gaining it, to the beginnings of World War II—spoke to me profoundly, and still do. I took two courses on Yeats and his poetry, as well as his plays and his collection of Irish myths. His poem, The Second Coming, is perhaps among the most quoted, and speaks to that sense in the early 20th century that chaos was about to ensue.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
It is perhaps cliché to say that folks in every generation since this poem was published have found these words speaking to them in one form or another.
What happens when things fall apart? When the unthinkable happens, whatever that might be for us: global pandemic or economic fallout, environmental catastrophe, or a personal loss? What does it actually look like? We have this sense from movies and TV and books that it looks like utter catastrophe, but from our own tradition, from the Book of Lamentations, which we read on the 9th of Av, this coming Sunday, we know it is far more prosaic than that. We may mourn the empty roads of Judah, bereft of festival pilgrims, a destroyed Temple, and a people subjugated and on the run. But the rest of the world looks on with a shrug, and foxes prowl the Temple Mount, nature reclaiming what had been Israel’s pride. Certainly, there is a profound sense of loss; the unthinkable has happened! People are suffering! But also, the world continues. People may pause for a moment upon reading the headlines, or write some angry screed online, but then the go about their lives. People go back to normal.
We keep hearing people talk about wanting to go back to normal or insisting that they can go back to normal. But what does that mean? What happens when we do not acknowledge our experiences, our pain? And what normal are we going back to? I have seen plenty of people in the last month respond to their inconvenience with severe hostility and even assume ill-will, as if incapable of recognizing that they were not the only ones who suffered. Perhaps this is pent-up anxiety finally expressing itself. Perhaps it is something else. To anyone who has suffered a loss and discovered that the sun came up the next day despite their suffering, we might imagine the trauma and grief of that moment. We see something similar in this week’s portion, devarim, as Moses recounts the story of the Exodus and the journey through the wilderness, but not exactly as we read it in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. There is an emphasis, it seems, on Moses’ own pain and sense of failure, and a recognition on his part that, despite all that he has done, Israel will go into the Land without him; they will carry on, and he will not. So, Lamentations and the 9th of Av give us the opportunity to, in our return to normalcy, to be mindful of others’ pain, our own pain, and how so much of the world is far from normal. As Aviva Richman writes, it is a chance to be “aware of the fragility of life, the reality of violence, and the importance of doing the work to protect and sustain what matters most.” May we fulfill the words at the end of this book: Let us go back, and may we take each other back, and be renewed. Amen.