Almost Tisha b'Av

Tisha b'Av is coming.

On the ninth day of the lunar month of Av -- on the Gregorian / secular calendar, that date is coming up this Saturday -- Jews around the world will gather in mourning. We will mourn the fall of the first Temple, destroyed by Babylon on 9 Av in 586 B.C.E. We will mourn the fall of the second Temple, destroyed by Rome on 9 Av in 70 C.E.

We will mourn our own shortcomings, as exemplified in the Talmudic teaching that the first Temple fell because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred -- or in the Biblical story of the scouts who, sent to get a first glimpse of the Promised Land, came back on 9 Av full of their own fears and as a result doomed their generation to wander in the wilderness.

We will mourn the beginning of the first Crusade which killed thousands of Jews and which began on (or near) 9 Av; the expulsion of Jews from England and, later, from Spain, both of which happened on (or near) 9 Av; and the Grossaktion (great deportation and mass extermination) from the Warsaw Ghetto, which likewise happened on 9 Av.

Some of us, on Tisha b'Av, will also be mourning the more generalized brokenness of creation; the damage done by humankind to humankind, whether in the destruction of a holy house of worship 2000 years ago or the destruction of Black churches in America today; the horrors of war throughout the centuries, from antiquity to Hiroshima to the present day.

Some of us, on Tisha b'Av, will also be mourning the brokenness of our earth and the fear that in our lust for fossil fuel we are destroying and burning our earth as surely as the holy Temple was destroyed. Some of us will also be mourning the brokenness in our hearts and in our relationships -- our own internal walls which have crumbled, our own shattered places.

On the secular / American calendar, this is the heart of summer; a fun season, a celebratory time. On the Jewish calendar, Tisha b'Av calls us to dip into awareness of mourning. It's a little bit like the glass we break at every wedding -- a reminder that even in our times of greatest joy, somewhere in the world there still exist brokenness and sorrow.

Tradition also teaches that on the afternoon of Tisha b'Av, when we are most deeply immersed in sorrow and grief, the seeds of redemption are planted. One midrash holds that moshiach, the messiah, will be born on the afternoon of Tisha b'Av. It's like in the Greek myth of Pandora which I loved as a child: there is hope at the bottom of the box.


As Tisha b'Av approaches


We begin our descent
toward the rubble.

Our hearts crack open
and sorrow comes flooding in.

Help us to believe
that tears can transform,

that redemption is possible.
The walls will come down:

open our eyes, give us strength
not to look away.



You can find more Tisha b'Av posts in my 9Av category.  I commend to you especially this pair of liturgies for the holiday assembled jointly by me and Rabbi David Markus last summer.

The above poem was originally posted in 2012, and will appear in my forthcoming collection
Open My Lips, due later this year from Ben Yehuda Press.

Beyond our broken walls

Brickwallscrumbledplaster97566On the Jewish calendar we're in the period called bein ha-meitzarim, "between the narrows" or "in tight straits." This three-week journey began with 17 Tamuz, the day when we remembered the long-ago first breach of Jerusalem's city walls.

It will end with 9 Av, the day when we will remember the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, and many other heart-wrenching catastrophes besides. This is a time of year for recognizing what is broken.

There's no shortage of brokenness to notice. Any dive into world news reveals tragedy and trauma. History is filled with broken places, and we carry those with us. And there are broken places in our individual lives. Relationships which have fractured, institutions which are damaged,  sorrows which make our hearts ache. I think we all know the feeling of being trapped in something that is broken.

And yet.

The brokenness isn't an end in itself. The year doesn't end with Tisha b'Av. On the contrary, some see Tisha b'Av as the first step toward Elul and the Days of Awe, the first step toward reorienting and realigning ourselves, toward our annual spiritual rebirth. Every life contains brokenness, but the brokenness doesn't need to define the life. Our broken places can also be openings for something new. As the great sage Leonard Cohen teaches, "There is a crack in everything; it's how the light gets in."

There's something interesting about reflecting on these broken walls (both historical and personal) while I am teaching at Beyond Walls, a retreat which encourages clergy to think about how our writing can take us beyond the walls of our religious communities, beyond the walls of our institutions, out into the world. Can we experience our broken walls as openings to a place of connection? When our walls break, can we respond by building doors? What holiness might we then be able to let in?

Learning to greet collapse with joy: from Tisha b'Av to Sukkot

This concatenation of ritual -- this dance that begins on Tisha b'Av and ends on Sukkot, that begins with the mournful collapse of a house and ends with the joyful collapse of a house, this intentional spasm that awakens us and carries us through death and back to life again -- stands for the journey the soul is always on.

That's Rabbi Alan Lew in the book I begin rereading every year around this time. This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation.

Every year some of the same passages leap out at me. And every year there are some different lines which strike a chord. This is very like my experience of reading Torah every year, too.

This year I'm struck by his reminder that this period of holy time begins with the mournful collapse of a house -- the fallen Temples -- and ends with the joyful collapse of a house -- the sukkot we dismantle at the end of our festival season.

Impermanence is inevitable. The house is going to collapse. Our bodies fail. Our lives come to an end. But do we greet that inevitable collapse with anxiety, or with faith in whatever comes next?

[W]e can regard the ninth of Av as a time when we are reminded that catastrophes will keep recurring in our lives until we get things right, until we learn what we need to learn from them. Tisha b'Av comes exactly seven weeks before Rosh Hashanah, beginning the process that culminates on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Tisha b'Av is the moment of turning, the moment when we turn away from denial and begin to face exile and alienation as they manifest themselves in our own lives -- in our alienation and estrangement from God, in our alienation from ourselves and from others.

The moment when we turn away from denial and begin to face exile and alienation. For most of us this doesn't mean exile from the Land. But everyone experiences exile, even if only from the childhood innocence to which we can no longer return.

It is so tempting to deny that everyone feels alienation and exile. I want to pretend that I don't feel these things, and that my loved ones don't either. It is so tempting to put a band-aid over everything that hurts and pretend that we can make it okay.

But today is the day to face the fact that a band-aid isn't going to cut it. That loss and fear, sickness and death, alienation and estrangement are part of every life. And in that existential turning, we can begin to change how we relate to all of these.

As Rabbi Lew writes, "Tisha b'Av is the beginning of Teshuvah, the process of turning that we hope to complete on Yom Kippur, the process of returning to ourselves and to God." Today, because we are willing to face grief, we begin to return home.

Tisha b'Av has a hot tip for us: Take the suffering. Take the loss. Turn toward it. Embrace it. Let the walls come down. // And Tisha b'Av has a few questions for us as well. Where are we? What transition point are we standing at? What is causing sharp feeling in us, disturbing us, knocking us a little off balance? Where is our suffering? What is making us feel bad? What is making us feel at all? How long will we keep the walls up? How long will we furiously defend against what we know deep down to be the truth of our lives?

There's no escaping loss. All we can do is let the walls crumble -- the walls of "holding ourselves together," the walls of "bad things happen to them but not to me," the walls behind which we've allowed ourselves to become complacent and comfortable.

Because every moment is a transition point. And in every moment we can choose to accept the truth of our lives -- that life is temporary; that we come from Mystery and we return to Mystery; that we can't protect our loved ones from sorrow and pain.

All we can do is let the walls fall, and grieve their falling, and pour out our hearts before God -- throwing ourselves wholly into the journey toward that other home demolition, the one at Sukkot which we will greet with song and processional and joy.

Because if we can learn to greet that home demolition with joy, then maybe we can learn to greet the collapse which is at the heart of human existence with joy. Things fall apart. Can we use the next two months to learn how to greet that with celebration?

Baseless hatred: still here

This is a time of unusually polarized and polarizing discourse in the Jewish community. The situation in Israel and in Gaza is devastating. And so is the way I've seen people reacting to different beliefs and opinions regarding that devastation: who's at fault, which atrocities are "worse," whose suffering merits our attention. As though compassion were a zero-sum game. As though anyone "deserves" fear, destruction, and loss. As though feeling empathy for the Other weren't at the very heart of Torah.

Just last week I received an email from someone who sought to put me in cherem, excommunication, because this person perceives that my writings about how I hope peace and justice will come to Israel and Palestine are a threat to Jewish unity. One of my dear colleagues has received death threats directed at them and their children. Another colleague was the victim of a spoof press release, filled with hateful rhetoric, which purported to be from him and featured his full name and contact information.

Everyone I know who writes about the Middle East expects to receive hate mail. Often that hate mail is laced with profanity. Often it draws analogies to Nazis, insisting that one who holds the "wrong opinion" about Israel and Palestine is no better than a kapo, one who collaborates with the destruction of our people. This is hate mail written by Jews, to Jews. When we are feeling strong we shrug it off, try to laugh, say ruefully that it's the price one pays for having an opinion. But in truth, receiving this vitriol hurts.

What is the matter with people? This is a real question. What is wrong with us, that anyone imagines that these are appropriate ways to treat others? Harassment is never called-for. Neither is name-calling. And surely it should go without saying that no one should ever make death threats, or spread libelous allegations which could be damaging to someone's livelihood. This is not the way that human beings should treat each other. Ever. No matter how substantively we disagree, about anything.

The sages of the Talmud, I suspect, might agree:

Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because of three things which prevailed there: idolatry, immorality, bloodshed.

But why was the Second Temple destroyed, seeing that in its time they were occupying themselves with Torah, mitzvot, and the practice of charity? Because therein prevailed baseless hatred. This teaches us that baseless hatred is considered of equal gravity with the three sins of idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed together.

(Yoma 9b)

Baseless hatred, say our sages, is of equal gravity with the three worst sins in the Jewish lexicon. Because our community was unable to overcome its internal divisions; because of unkindness and inability to bend -- say our sages -- the second Temple fell. Tonight at sundown we will gather in fasting and prayer and lamentation, remembering that destruction, mourning every grief and brokenness we know. Have we learned anything about kindness and compassion in the last two thousand years?


Variations on a liturgy for Tisha b'Av

Tisha b'Av is almost upon us -- that painful day when we remember the fall of the first Temple in 586 BCE, and the fall of the second Temple in 70 CE. The anniversary, tradition teaches, of all kinds of other atrocities, from Crusades to the Expulsion from Spain to the Chmielnicki massacre in Poland in the 17th century to the expulsion from the Warsaw Ghetto during the last century.

It's a dark day. It's also a darkness which contains within it the seeds of light and redemption. Tradition teaches that the messiah will be born on the afternoon of Tisha b'Av -- that from the depths of our grief will come the spark of our greatest hopes for transformation and wholeness.

This year I'm delighted to be able to share two versions of a Tisha b'Av liturgy -- a collaboration between myself and Rabbi David Markus who serves Temple Beth El of City Island. One version will be used at his "shul by the sea;" the other will be used at Congregation Beth Israel here in the Berkshires:


Download For the Sake of Ascent TBE [23 pages, 1.7mb, pdf]

Download For the Sake of Ascent CBI [17 pages, 173k, pdf]


Both versions feature excerpts from Eicha (Lamentations), the prayers of the evening service, and poems by Yehuda Amichai, Toge Sankichi, and Mark Nazimova, among others. Both feature prayers written by David and by me.

The TBE version draws a closer connection to the 9/11 bombings (after all, from City Island they could see the smoke rising); the CBI version draws a closer connection with recent trauma in the Middle East. The TBE version has a few songs which aren't in the CBI version; the CBI version contains a text study which isn't in the TBE version. The CBI version interweaves Eicha with the evening service, while the TBE version doesn't. They're variations on a theme.

I hope that these siddurim will open up some of this holiday's power and potential for the daveners who use them.



A poem after Tisha b'Av


No blessing is so fervent
as the one over water
fresh from the faucet

adorned with ice cubes
and a quarter of a lemon
at the end of Tisha b'Av.

The crunch of snap peas
cold from the fridge
and sweet as sugar

their texture, crisp
and bright against the tongue
almost brings me to tears.

A day immersed in trauma,
the fallen temple of justice
mothers wailing for their sons --

our fast can't bring
children back to life,
rebuild what is broken.

But it reminds me
people know this emptiness daily
and have nothing to eat.

And that other hunger
for an end to prejudice,
for a world redeemed...

God, rouse my thirst
for righteousness. Make me
care for this damaged world.



4053470943_1ed648a3af_mThis poem's title comes from the Hebrew song וּשְׁאַבְתֶּם-מַיִם בְּשָׂשׂוֹן / ushavtem mayim b'sasson [here on YouTube], which is a setting of Isaiah 12:3.

(See also Amos 5:24, "Let justice flow like waters, righteousness like a mighty stream.")

It is traditional Jewish practice to fast from both food and water during Tisha b'Av, when we remember the two fallen Temples and mourn the brokenness of creation.

On "the fallen temple of justice" and "mothers wailing for their sons," see: George Zimmerman, Not Guilty: Blood on the Leaves by Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker and Trayvon Martin and the Irony of American Justice by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic.

Image credit: by gnuckx, licensed under Creative Commons.

As we move now into the seven weeks of consolation between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah, may our Tisha b'Av galvanize us to build a more healed and redeemed world.

An internet parable about kindness for Tisha b'Av

TextWhen one person is unkind to another, a whole world can be destroyed.

Once there was a woman who belonged to an intimate and dedicated online community, where for many years people had congregated to share their writing and to support each other through life's troubles and travails.

She had a friend in that community named Jane, and an enemy named Janeway. One day she decided to throw a party in IRC, and she invited members of the community. She meant to invite her friend Jane, but her email program auto-filled the wrong email address and the invitation went to Janeway instead.

So the party got underway, people were hanging out and watching streaming video and having a blast -- and the host noticed Janeway's nick in the list of participants. She was incensed, and instead of yelling at Janeway in a private channel, she accosted her in all-caps where everyone could see. "YOU! You tell untrue stories about me," she wrote. "What are you doing here? GET OUT!"

Janeway typed, "Look, I'm already here -- let me stay, and I'll chip in toward the costs of the party." The woman said, hell no. "Then let me pay for half of the party," Janeway wheedled. No, said the woman. "Then let me pay for the whole thing," Janeway offered.  With no further ado, the woman publicly booted Janeway from the chat server and password-protected the room so she couldn't get back in.

Continue reading "An internet parable about kindness for Tisha b'Av" »

Tisha b'Av begins tonight

2651898311_c55789ec7f_mTonight at sundown we enter into Tisha b'Av, a communal day of mourning. On Tisha b'Av we remember the fall of the First Temple in 586 BCE, and the fall of the Second Temple in 70 CE; we remember pogroms and tragedies throughout our history; we remember human suffering writ large; we recognize the brokenness in all creation; we enter into a process of communal teshuvah, repentance/return. For many of us this is a day of fasting and contemplation.

On the afternoon of Tisha b'Av, tradition tells us, Moshiach will be born -- our deepest hopes for redemption, entering our world at our moment of greatest mourning and sorrow. And beginning on the day after Tisha b'Av, we count forty-nine days -- seven weeks -- until Rosh Hashanah, the new year.

In the Tisha b'Av category on this blog are my writings about this day from the last several years, including a few poems (I am partial to As Tisha b'Av Approaches, 2012 and After the fall, 2011); an essay written the first year I fasted on Tisha b'Av (This year's wrestle with Tisha b'Av, 2011); and a series of vignettes from one year's observance at my small shul (Three scenes from Tisha b'Av, 2009.)

I also recommend The journey from estrangement to love to return, a post by Rabbi Sara Leya Schley of Jewish Renewal community Chochmat HaLev. She writes:

Tomorrow night is the 9th of Av, the culmination of period of consciously connecting with our estrangement from self, community and the Divine. Symbolized by the destruction of the Temple, Tisha b’Av brings us to confront what it means to live without a spiritual home, without the place where Shekhinah (the Divine Presence) is always waiting for us. By awakening to our suffering – personal and historical, we create an opening to profound self-awareness. Encountering and embracing the shadow diminishes the power of fear over our psyche.

The wisdom of our Tradition teaches us that mourning our losses, deeply feeling and acknowledging our brokenness in body, mind and soul, creates the opening for renewal. On this darkest of days, Moshiah is born: from the depths of destruction, springs the hope of transformation and redemption. Leonard Cohen famously reminds us "there's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in"...

Her whole post is worth reading. In another interpretation (because if there's one thing to know about Judaism, it's that we always have other interpretations, other ways of understanding things) Tisha b'Av is a day of mourning the ways in which not only the Temple was destroyed, but our whole planet is in danger of destruction. Rabbi Arthur Waskow's Eicha for the Earth: the Text a Ceremony of Sorrow, Hope, & Action at The Shalom Center is an excellent read on that front.

Whatever your understanding of this day, and whatever your Tisha b'Av practices are: may your Tisha b'Av be meaningful and profound, a doorway into the transformation of the holy season which is about to begin.



Photo is mine, from 2008; Stones, wall, shrubs, taken at Robinson's Arch. The fallen stones were hurled down from the Temple Mount when the Romans sacked the Temple in 70 C.E. 

New month of Av and Ramadan

18Chodesh tov: a good new (lunar) month to all. Today's new moon brings us into the month of Av on the Jewish calendar. We're moving further into our journey toward the Days of Awe. One week from tonight/tomorrow we'll observe Tisha b'Av, remembering the fall of both Temples and acknowledging the sorrow, loss, and brokenness we experience in our lives and in the world. For me, Tisha b'Av is when we really begin the journey toward the Days of Awe.

Between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah there are seven weeks. Rosh Hashanah is the 50th day after Tisha b'Av, as Shavuot is the 50th day after Pesach. Some have the practice of doing a kind of reverse Omer count during these seven weeks -- I wrote about that a little bit in my editor's introduction to Shifrah Tobacman's Omer/Teshuvah. Like the period of the Omer, the seven weeks between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah are a period of introspection and deep soul-work.

As we enter the month of Av, our Muslim cousins are entering the month of Ramadan. (That was true last year, too.) This is the last time that our fast day of Tisha b'Av will coincide with their fasting month of Ramadan for a while. In the coming Jewish year of 5774, we'll have a "leap month" -- a whole extra month, which is to say, two months of Adar instead of only one -- which means that the Jewish holidays will move forward on the Gregorian calendar by a month. The Muslim calendar is purely lunar, not lunisolar, so when we gain an extra month, they don't... which means that our fasting won't be in synch again for many years.

Ramadan+e-belgique+1For me, there is something particularly meaningful about engaging in fasting and repentance on Tisha b'Av when it coincides with Ramadan and I know that the spiritual children of Ishmael are fasting and praying along with the spiritual children of Isaac. Our two traditions have many powerful and meaningful teachings in common. (I'm still grateful for the experience of the Emerging Jewish and Muslim Religious Leaders retreat back in 2009, which I wrote about in the essay Allah is the Light: Prayer in Ramadan and Elul.) Especially for those of us who pay attention to the Middle East, it's easy to get caught up in news stories about Jewish-Muslim conflict -- but that's not the only paradigm for our two religious communities. Maybe the experience of fasting alongside one another this Tisha b'Av and Ramadan can help us experience our similarities anew.

Want to know more about this new month on the Jewish calendar? The name Av means "father." One mystical tradition (found in the Sefer Yetzirah) associates this month with the letter tet / ט (which, since Hebrew letters are also numbers, corresponds to the number nine.) This letter is understood to resemble the shape of a womb. I love that the month whose name means "father" is associated with the womb -- what a beautiful encapsulation of the gender-bending (or gender-transcending) realities of God! (The masculine God-name HaRachaman / The Merciful One shares a root with rechem / womb, so there's a way in which our tradition is always engaging in this kind of gender-bending God-talk. I wrote about that a few years ago -- Returning to the divine womb.)

The Sefer Yetzirah also associates different months with different senses. The special sense of last month, Tammuz, was sight; the sense of this month is hearing.

"To hear" in Hebrew means "to understand," to fully integrate into one's consciousness (into one's heart, not only to understand intellectually in one's mind). To hear another is to fully understand his dilemma and emphasize with him...

The sense of hearing is the sense of inner balance. (Imbalance is the source of all fall and destruction). A well balanced ear, a well oriented sense of hearing, possesses the ability to discern and distinguish in everything one hears truth from falseness, as is said (Job 12:11 and 34:3): "the ear discerns words"/ ozen malin tivchan (the initial letters of this phrase spell emet--"truth").

The word Av contains the first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet: alef, beit, which are the first letters of the words emunah and bitachon, "faith" and "trust." This month we strive to return to our beginnings, to the alef from which all creation unfolds, and to find faith and trust there.

adapted from various teachings about Av at

As we move into the month of Av and Ramadan, may we truly be able to hear one another -- not despite our differences but in and through them. May we empathize with one another. May we find inner balance. May we experience faith and trust. And whether or not we fast from eating on Tisha b'Av or during Ramadan, may we fast from unkindness, from ingratitude, from our worst inclinations. May we take advantage of this month and cultivate our hearts and spirits to serve God and to serve the world.

Chodesh tov / Ramadan mubarak!

Here's a blessing for the new month -- in Hebrew, transliteration, and English -- written by Marcia Falk: Prayer for the New Month.

New Torah poem - inspired by the book of Ezra



It's a hot day in Jerusalem.
Workmen wipe sweat, straining
to lift limestone into place.

A brass band: priests in white linen
playing polished trumpets,
Levites smashing cymbals in praise.

Old men weep who remember
when the rubble was whole
and teenagers scream for joy.

They don't know
that jealousy will stop
their construction in its tracks

that some unpaid scribe
will need to hunt the stacks
for a memorandum of permission

that this house too will fall
and the people will scatter
like cornmeal on a baking stone.

Today they celebrate: God
is on our side!
No one imagines
how much harder their story will get.

This poem arises out of the story of the rebuilding of the Temple, found in the book of Ezra, chapter 3 through chapter 6.

There's something very poignant for me about imagining the rebuilding of the Temple after the years of the Babylonian Exile. Those who remembered the first Temple must have been overwhelmed with joy to see their dreams take shape again.

From the vantage point of where we are now, it's easy to think of the two temples as almost a unit. There was a Temple in Jerusalem, and it was built twice, and then it fell, and Judaism has never been the same. But there was a moment in time when the second one was built, and no one knew it was going to fall just like the first one did.

For all that I cherish the shapes and forms of rabbinic Judaism (and I do!) -- and could not imagine returning to sacrificing animals on a stone altar again -- I can imagine how crushing it must have been when the House of God was toppled.

Thinking about the story of this rebuilding, I find myself holding my breath.

Tisha b'Av, the day when we remember the fall of both temples, falls this weekend and will be observed starting on Saturday night.

A prayer from Reb Zalman for Tisha b'Av

Here's a prayer for Tisha b'Av, written by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a.k.a. Reb Zalman.

This comes from the Reb Zalman Legacy Project blog; in this post he explains the origin of this prayer. It's meant to be recited on Tisha b'Av, the day when we mourn both fallen Temples, which this year begins on Saturday, July 28, at sundown. I find it both beautiful and meaningful; I hope you do too.


Rosh Chodesh Av; Ramadan Mubarak

A sliver of new moon.

This morning I woke to an email from Rabbi Arthur Waskow which began:

Tonight (July 19, 2012), as the New Moon glimmers, the Jewish and Muslim communities both enter a solemn month, known to one as Ramadan and the other as Av. In both, fasting takes on great importance as a way of focusing spiritual energy.

During the whole month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. As they do, they turn their attention from material gain and physical pleasures to the call of God to serve the poor, to work for justice, to meditate on what is deep joy rather than immediate pleasure...

Jews enter the month of Av with an eye toward its ninth day, Tisha B'Av, a day of lament for the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem. On that day, Jews fast for 24 hours, from sunset to sunset of the next day. This year the ninth day of Av falls on Shabbat; so the fast and lamentation are postponed to begin after Shabbat on Saturday night, July 28, leading into Sunday, July 29.

Read the whole thing at the Shalom Center website: When Ramadan and Av unite.

The Muslim calendar is purely lunar; the Jewish calendar is lunisolar. (What does that mean? Here's the Wikipedia entry on the Hebrew calendar -- basically, we insert a "leap month" in 7 out of 19 years to keep our spring festivals in the northern-hemisphere spring, and our fall festivals in the northern-hemisphere fall. As previously noted, the rabbis who originated our calendar were clearly not thinking about life in the global South.) Ramadan moves around the solar calendar year; a few years ago it overlapped with the Jewish month of Elul (see Allah is the Light: Prayer in Ramadan and Elul, 2009.) And this year Ramadan overlaps with the lunar month of Av.

I had the feeling I had written about that particular confluence before, too, so I checked my own archives. Sure enough, last year Av and Ramadan coincided as well, and I wrote:

In the confluence of our calendars this year I find a powerful reminder that we and our Muslim cousins -- descendants, our tradition says, of the half-brothers Yitzchak and Yishmael, Isaac and Ishmael -- are walking parallel paths toward the Holy Blessed One. During the coming lunar month, as the moon waxes and wanes, both communities (in our varied forms -- Jews whose practice ranges from Reform to Hasidic, in Israel and in Diaspora; Muslims of Arab, South Asian, African American, and every other descent, all around the world) will be engaging in prayer, in fasting, and in giving generously to those in need, in order to more wholly align ourselves with God's will.

Read the whole post: Approaching Av...and Ramadan.

To my Jewish friends and readers I wish a meaningful month of Av, replete with awareness of our communal journey from the depths of sorrow (during this last of the Three Weeks and through Tisha b'Av) into comfort and joy. And to my Muslim friends and readers, a blessed Ramadan! May both of our communities find blessing in this month of prayer and reflection, and may this month strengthen our sense of our common ground.

This is real, and I want to be prepared: beginning the journey

This coming Shabbat at my shul we'll begin discussing one of my favorite books: This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation by Rabbi Alan Lew. I've posted about it several times before. I try to make a practice of rereading it each year as we enter this season.

If you live locally, I hope you'll join us at CBI this Shabbat for a discussion of the first three chapters of this book (come at 11am -- or join us at 9:30 for davenen first!) And for those who don't live nearby, I thought I might share a few favorite passages here.

26ac228348a01076986d3110-lThe journey I will describe in these pages is one of self-discovery, spiritual discpline, self-forgiveness, and spiritual evolution. It is the snapshot the Jewish people pull out every autumn of the journey all human beings must make across this world: the journey from Tisha b'Av to Sukkot, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, from birth to death and back to renewal again. Seeing yourself in this snapshot will help you chart the course of your own spiritual evolution. Every soul needs to express itself. Every heart needs to crack itself open. Every one of us needs to move from anger to healing, from denial to consciousness, from boredom to renewal. These needs did not arise yesterday. They are among the most ancient of human yearnings, and they are fully expressed in the pageantry and ritual of the Days of Awe, in the great journey we make between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

I love this way of describing the journey of this season. And I love Rabbi Lew's assertion that every soul needs to express itself, every heart needs to crack itself open, every one of us needs to move from denial to consciousness...and that the meaningful dates on the Jewish calendar over the next few months, from Tisha b'Av all the way to Sukkot, are designed to be our spiritual touchstones on this recurring journey.

Continue reading "This is real, and I want to be prepared: beginning the journey" »

This year's wrestle with Tisha b'Av

I've never fasted before on Tisha b'Av. Odd admission for a rabbi to make, isn't it? For a long time I was resistant to the holiday because I didn't feel able to mourn the fall of the temples. On the contrary: I celebrate the deep and rich flowering of rabbinic Judaism which the fall of the temples birthed. I celebrate the paradigm shift from sacrificial Judaism, which was place-based and animal-based, to a Judaism in which we connect with God through prayer and we carry our connection-point with God with us wherever we go. If I didn't buy in to the holiday's central message, how could I consider fasting?

Several years ago I started engaging with Tisha b'Av as a day for acknowledging the brokenness of creation. The fall of the temples, I thought, might be seen as a metaphor for brokenness writ large, an embodiment of the Lurianic kabbalistic story of shvirat ha-kelim, the shattering of the vessels at the moment of creation. And indeed it can be read that way. Surely the world at large is broken and suffering is everywhere. But after a while this started to seem like the easy way out. I wanted to universalize the story at this day's heart because I was uncomfortable with the place-based particularism of mourning only our communal miseries, but something niggled at the back of my consciousness, a sense that erasing the particularity of the day altogether was doing violence to the day and to its meaning in our festival cycle.

On Tisha b'Av, our tradition teaches, the first temple was destroyed by Babylon in 586 BCE, and the second temple was destroyed by Rome in 70 CE. Beyond that, this is said to be the date when the twelve spies sent by Moshe to explore the promised land returned with their false report rooted in their fears, which doomed that generation of Israelites to wander in the wilderness until all of those who had known slavery had died. This is understood to be the anniversary of the failed Bar Kokhba revolt against Roman rule, the anniversary of the beginning of the first Crusade which killed thousands of Jews, the anniversary of the date when Jews were expelled from England and, later, from Spain. During World War II, Tisha b'Av was the date of the Grossaktion (great deportation and mass extermination) from the Warsaw Ghetto. These are all stories about us, our mythic history and our historical memory.

During most of the year, I explicitly reject the victim mentality which looks at history through the lens of all of the awful things which have happened to us... but I've come to think that there may be value, once a year, in sitting with our painful history. Maybe if we go deep into these narratives today, we can free ourselves from the need to carry them with us every day as we live in the world. Maybe we need a day when we remember our collective traumas, from the Babylonians to the Romans to the Crusades, so that having immersed in those stories we can make the conscious choice to shape our narratives and to understand our place in the world differently.

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On fasting (Tisha b'Av and Kazim Ali's "Fasting for Ramadan")

Slowly but surely, I'm reading Fasting for Ramadan: Notes from a Spiritual Practice by Kazim Ali, a set of short meditative essays written during the experience of fasting for Ramadan, published by Tupelo Press.

I've never experienced a fast like Ramadan. A whole month of daytime fasting: the idea is foreign to me. Though of course I have fasted; the vast majority of Jews fast on Yom Kippur, and many fast also on other fast days (among them Tisha b'Av, which begins tonight.)

I've been thinking lately about the fast of Tisha b'Av as the beginning of the journey which culminates in the fast of Yom Kippur. My hevruta partner David and I realized, last week, that the two are 60 days apart. First comes Tisha b'Av, when we fast in mourning for the fallen temples. Then we count 49 days, a kind of parallel to the Counting of the Omer, and the 50th day is Rosh Hashanah, the new year. Ten days after that comes Yom Kippur, the fast at the far end of the journey. How different might that Yom Kippur fast feel if one entered into it having willingly and consciously undertaken this sixty-day journey of transformation, bookended by a fast at either end?

There's something powerful about reading Ali's meditations now as I anticipate my own fasts. Ali writes beautifully about the experience of fasting: what it's like for him physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually. Here's a taste, from the seventh day of Ramadan:

When you say "One time," in a story, you mean a time that happened in the past, but one you are still living in, living at that very moment. How often have you caught a whiff of patchouli, seen someone wearing a yellow scarf, heard the Indigo Girls singing "Love's Recovery" -- and suddenly you are gone, out of the present, backward in time, some other place, miles away, how easy it is to be transported, how slight our connection to our body is, as an entity in space.

The fast is a permanent "one time," because you are disconnected from the physical network of food and exchange of mass and matter that connects all the physical universe. You are a mere ghost, hovering, breathing the air in and out, not partaking, but affecting the world nonetheless with your karmic actions, even with your breathing.

One of the things I appreciate about sitting in meditation is the extent to which meditation allows me to gently notice the frenetic antics of my own mind. Fasting is a little bit like that, too, I think. Pausing from my regular consumption helps me take stock of that consumption and of the ways in which I allow it to control me. Though that's an intellectual exercise; part of what I'm loving about Ali's book is how it opens up his physical, emotional, and spiritual experience of the Ramadan fast. Fasting is such a strange experience: deeply embodied, on the one hand, and on the other hand lifting me out of my body and into a kind of fugue state.

Anyway. I wish a continued Ramadan kareem to my friends who are celebrating. And to those who will be fasting tonight and tomorrow for Tisha b'Av, may your fast be meaningful... and may we Jews and Muslims, perhaps, find connection with one another in our mutual experience of fasting, and may that fast bring all of us closer to God.

R' Alan Lew on taking responsibility for our patterns

The (second) temple in Jerusalem, writes Rabbi Alan Lew (of blessed memory) in his excellent book This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, fell to the Romans not because of hatred between/among Jews (as the mishna would have it), but because Rome was so powerful that nothing could stand in its way. And surely the rabbis of the Talmud knew this about the Roman Empire. So why did they cast blame on the children of Israel? Why blame themselves for what was clearly beyond their power?

Lew's response rings in me like a shofar call. He writes that to spiritual leaders, the only question worth asking about any recurring catastrophe is: how am I complicit in this, and how can I keep it from happening again? This is true, of course, not only on a national level, but on a personal one, as well:

Spiritually we are called to responsibility, to ask, What am I doing to make this recur again and again? Even if it is a conflict that was clearly thrust upon me from the outside, how am I plugging in to it, what is there in me that needs to be engaged in this conflict? Why can't I just let it slough off me like water off a duck's back, as I am able to do with so many other things?

...Why do our relationships always fail in precisely the same way? Why do we always fall into the same kind of conflict at work? Why do we always have the same arguments with our children? With our parents? ...What is the recurring disaster in our life? What is the unresolved element that keeps bringing us back to this same moment over and over again? What is it that we keep getting wrong? What is it that we persistently fail to look at, fail to see?

Tisha b'Av is the day on which we are reminded of the calamity that keeps repeating itself in the life of our people. And against all reason -- against the overwhelming evidence of history -- Moses and the rabbis insist that we are not powerless in the face of that calamity. Moses and the rabbis insist that we take responsibility for what is happening to us. Moses and the rabbis insist that we acknowledge our complicity in the things that keep happening to us over and over again.

I don't know about you, but this is exactly what I needed to read today. (And apparently that too is something which recurs for me; I just read the post I wrote about this book back in 2006, seasonal teachings from Rabbi Alan Lew, and sure enough, one of the quotes I just lifted up is in that post, too...)

This is, I think, part of the hard work of teshuvah (repentance / return.) In order to make teshuvah, to turn myself in the right direction again, I need to be willing to take a good hard look at myself and my patterns. I need to take responsibility for whatever recurs for me emotionally and interpersonally. Which isn't to say that I alone am responsible for everything that unfolds, or that I should castigate myself for my failings -- that would be a dangerous misreading of the teachings of this season. But Tisha b'Av calls me, calls us, to recognize the ways in which we are complicit in the things which are broken in our lives.

After the fall - a poem for Tisha b'Av

It's Rosh Chodesh Av, the first day of the new month of Av. Tisha b'Av is coming soon.

At my synagogue, we'll read Lamentations alongside a few more contemporary poems of sorrow. Usually we read Yehuda Amichai's "God has mercy upon the nursery school children" and Toge Sankichi's "At the First-Aid Station," both of which are extraordinary. It feels chutzpahdik to place one of my own poems in this company; I haven't decided yet whether or not we're going to read this poem at our 9 Av observance. But I wanted to share the poem here in case it speaks to any of you.

(Feel free to share this poem -- all I ask is that you attach my name and URL so that people know where to find it and where to find me.)



The mishna says
senseless hatred
knocked the Temple down

not the Romans with their siege engines --
or not only them, but
our ancestors too

who slipped into petty backbiting
ignored Shabbat
forgot how to offer their hearts

we're no better
we who secretly know we're right

we who roll our eyes
and patronize, who check email
even on the holiest of days

who forget that
a prayer is more than a tune
more than words on a page

in Oslo parents weep
and we're too busy arguing
motive to comfort them

across the Middle East parents weep
and we're too busy arguing
borders to comfort them

in our nursing homes parents weep
shuddering and alone
and we're too busy --

even now what sanctuaries
what human hearts
are damaged and burned

while we snipe at each other
or insist we're not responsible
or look away?

Approaching Av... and Ramadan

On the Jewish calendar, next week we'll enter the month of Av. Av is a month of introspection. On the 9th of Av we observe a communal day of fasting and mourning in remembrance of the two fallen temples in Jerusalem and in remembrance of our communal suffering from the crusades to pogroms. Some see Tisha b'Av as a day to recognize the brokenness of creation writ large. And from there, we count 49 days until Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. These seven weeks, taken together, offer a picture of what the Hasidim call "descent for the sake of ascent" -- from the spiritual depths of 9 Av, we are newly able to make the spiritual ascent into and through the month of Elul to the Days of Awe. From Tisha b'Av to Rosh Hashanah unfold seven weeks during which we can do the internal work of tefilah, teshuvah, u-tzedakah -- prayer, repentance / turning-toward-God, and giving to the needy, which our liturgy teaches us can sweeten the severity of divine justice in our lives.

On the Muslim calendar, the lunar month which will begin next week is the month of Ramadan. Ramadan too is a month of introspection; of fasting, prayer, and giving alms to the needy. A time during which Muslims strive to align themselves with the will of God and to become conscious of God's presence in the world and in their lives.

Ramadan and Av do not always coincide. A few years ago, when I was blessed to attend a Retreat for Emerging Jewish and Muslim Leaders, Ramadan coincided with the month of Elul, which immediately prececes the Days of Awe. (I wrote an essay about that: Allah is the Light: Prayer in Ramadan & Elul.) Both the Muslim calendar and the Jewish one measure months by the moon, but the Jewish calendar is metonic; seven years out of every nineteen we insert a "leap month," which keeps our calendar more-or-less aligned with the solar one. So our high holidays always fall in the northern hemisphere autumn, and Pesach always falls in northern hemisphere spring. (The rabbis who designed our calendar were, alas, not thinking about the needs of Jews in the global South!) The Muslim calendar doesn't have this kind of correction mechanism, so Muslim holidays move around the solar calendar; this year Ramadan begins around August 1, next year it will begin around July 20, the year after that around July 10, and so on.

In the confluence of our calendars this year I find a powerful reminder that we and our Muslim cousins -- descendants, our tradition says, of the half-brothers Yitzchak and Yishmael, Isaac and Ishmael -- are walking parallel paths toward the Holy Blessed One. During the coming lunar month, as the moon waxes and wanes, both communities (in our varied forms -- Jews whose practice ranges from Reform to Hasidic, in Israel and in Diaspora; Muslims of Arab, South Asian, African American, and every other descent, all around the world) will be engaging in prayer, in fasting, and in giving generously to those in need, in order to more wholly align ourselves with God's will.

I love that our two religious communities share a vision of how we can make use of the practices of prayer, fasting, and tzedakah / zakat in order to realign ourselves toward God. And I love that this year, Jews and Muslims the world over will be entering into a sacred season of doing this spiritual work at the same time. May we give one another strength and blessing in the weeks ahead!

Recommended reading for the season:

  • 30 mosques - a Ramadan road trip to 30 different mosques all over the USA. A beautiful set of anecdotes and photographs which illustrate the diversity of American Muslim life and practice.

  • Prayers for the Ninth of Av - Reb Zalman's prayer, meant to be offered on the afternoon of Tisha b'Av when our grief begins to give way to hope for transformation. I especially like how his prayer touches on Jerusalem / Al-Quds.

  • Hungry for Ramadan - My friend Shahed Amanullah of altmuslim blogged daily through the month of Ramadan in 2007; these are his posts on Beliefnet.

  • New moon ritual for Elul - An earth-based Jewish ritual for the new moon which will come 3 weeks in to our 7-week journey from 9 Av to the Days of Awe.

Tisha b'Av and sounds of sorrow

The fallen stones date to the destruction of the second temple.

Tisha b'Av begins tonight at sundown. 

At the end of last year's post about the day -- Three scenes from Tisha b'Av -- I touched on the teaching from Talmud (tractate Yoma) that the second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam / senseless hatred (usually understood as hatred between Jews) and listed some of last year's egregious examples. It saddens me that I can reprise that teaching now with some of this year's instances of Jews being hateful to Jews: Anat Hoffman's recent arrest in Jerusalem for the "crime" of carrying a Torah scroll near the Kotel, the passage of a new conversion bill in the Israeli Knesset which gives the Orthodox Israeli rabbinate increased authority over who is considered a "real" Jew in the land of Israel. (That bill has troubling implications indeed.) Obviously we haven't solved the problem of sinat chinam quite yet.

My classmate Jonathan Zasloff has written an essay entitled What are you doing for assarah b'av? (Assarah b'av is the 10th of Av, the day which follows the mournful 9 Av.) He writes:

The time has come for us to acknowledge the dirty little secret of Tisha B’Av: the destruction of the Temple was one of the best things ever to happen to the Jewish people.

His essay is intentionally provocative, I think, but he's right that many blessings have arisen out of the paradigm shift occasioned by the Temple's fall. I've written before about the wondrous flowerings of post-Temple Judaism: rabbinic Judaism, diaspora Judaism, today's many-splendored variations on our religious theme. These are among the births which that death made possible. I have no yearning to restore temple sacrifice.

But I still find meaning in Tisha b'Av. Because we've all experienced the fall of walls and the destruction of something we loved. And once a year, together, we relive that experience -- we go down as a community into that pit of despair -- in order to remember that devastation and then rise up again. The spiritual work of the coming month of Elul, during which we prepare ourselves for the Days of Awe and strive to make teshuvah (to re/turn toward our Source), has a different valance when we come to it bearing the memories of a day of deep communal sorrow. Judaism calls us not to shy away from what hurts, but to confront it, to go deep into it -- and then to make our way out of it. This is part of our spiritual life too.

The destruction of the Temple so long ago may not feel relevant to some of us today, especially to we who prize the Diaspora Judaism which arose as a result of the Temple's fall. It's easy to argue that the fall of the Temple was a necessary birth-pang of the new paradigm. But I don't think Tisha b'Av is "just" about what happened then. Buildings fall and suffering continues in our own day, too. Via this post at Jewschool last year I learned about Rabbi Irwin Kula's recording of 9/11 voicemails -- from those on the planes, from those at the World Trade Center -- using Eicha trope [mp3], the traditional cantillation used for the Book of Lamentations which we read today in our 9 Av commemorations.

Above is an embedded media player which will allow you to listen to R' Kula's voicemail chanting. If you're reading this via an aggregator or via email and can't see the embed, you can go directly to the recording here.

Part of what makes the recording so devastating is the profound ordinariness of the messages. The little things we say to one another when we don't know the end is coming. Of course, I'm primed to find this melody especially poignant -- but I imagine it might resonate even for those who've never heard Eicha before. And these messages of sorrow, chanted in Eicha trope, give me a different perspective on the deaths chronicled in Lamentations -- and the needless deaths happening even now.

May listening to these words add power to your Tisha b'Av observance. May we together descend into darkness...and find our way again, by tomorrow's end, into the light.