Excerpted from In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks by Dr. Erica Brown, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books
Day Twenty One: 8 Av – Words on Fire
On Tisha B’Av, we think also of another book burning, far more ancient and closer to the heart of the day. In chapter 36 of the book of Jeremiah, God commands the prophet to write a scroll describing the future exile and destruction of Jerusalem. In Eikha Raba, the Rabbis suggested that what Jeremiah wrote was actually the book of Lamentations. He was in prison at the time and therefore contracted a scribe, Barukh son of Neria, to transcribe the words he dictated and to then read them publicly.
Jeremiah instructed Barukh, “I am in hiding; I cannot go to the House of the Lord. But you go and read aloud the words of the Lord from the scroll which you wrote at my dictation, to all the people in the House of the Lord on a fast day…” ( Jeremiah 36:5–6)
Barukh declaimed the words and the people became mightily afraid. The scroll was then read to King Jehoiakim of Judah and his court. They feared nothing in it, and the king took a scribe’s knife, cut into the document, and then threw it into the fire. Words that should have shaped Jewish life were consigned to flames. It is from this passage that the rabbis constructed a law, basing it on the verse, “And the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah after the king had burnt the scroll and the words…” (ibid. 36:27). If we ever have the misfortune of seeing a Torah on fire, we are obligated to rend our garments twice in mourning, the first time for the scroll and the second time for the text. We mourn the physical loss of the parchment, and we mourn separately for the destruction of the actual words.
But as in this chapter, in every chapter of book burning in our history, it is the soul of the Torah that has the last word. God appears to Jeremiah after the burning of Lamentations, and tells him to write it again:
So Jeremiah got another scroll and gave it to the scribe Barukh son of Neria. And at Jeremiah’s dictation, he wrote in it the whole text of the scroll that King Jehoiakim of Judah had burned; and more of the like was added. (Ibid. 36:32)
More was added the second time, enhancing whatever was lost. Ralph Waldo Emerson once noted that “every burned book… enlightens the world.” The burning of a book only makes it words blaze clearer and more dramatically in our imagination. They may burn our books, but our words will endure.
Kavana for the Day
One of the ways that we combat the book burnings of our past is with the purchase of books in our present. It is up to each of us to own a Jewish library, both for our own spiritual and intellectual growth, and to be a role model for our children, demonstrating what it means to live by the word. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in the fifth letter in his book, The Nineteen Letters, says that “The very development of man’s intellect itself depends on means of putting it to use: on communication through words.” So many of these words of wisdom are included in Jewish books, but sadly, there are many Jewish homes today without any Jewish books. Redeem our past by buying a Jewish book for yourself and your family. Help your children begin a Jewish library of their own. It is a legacy of language and a gift to the soul.