Wrestling with 9 Av
July 26, 2004
Tisha B'Av, which began tonight at sundown, challenges me. I have a tendency to want to universalize the day's particular commemoration of suffering; I'm more comfortable mourning the broken world in general, our sorrowful distance from God, than I am mourning the destruction of the Temples all those centuries ago. (The tradition also tells us that several other pernicious acts were committed against the Jewish people on 9 Av, though the dual destructions of the Temple are usually considered the worst of these.)
One reason for my discomfort is that, while I acknowledge that the destruction of each Temple was a source of tremendous suffering in its time, I think they were necessary in order for us to move beyond a site-specific relationship with holiness and with God. The destruction of the Temple enabled the shift from sacrificial Judaism to prayer- and study-based Judaism; as such, I can't entirely mourn it, because I wouldn't take the change back. The traditional conception holds that the Temple's rebuilding will mark the ultimate redemption, but I'm not comfortable with that paradigm: I follow my Reform upbringing here, thinking instead in terms of a messianic age when the work of healing the world will be completed. The rebuilding of the Temple doesn't figure in my personal eschatology.
I also have a hard time with the holiday's potential implication that our suffering is somehow greater or stronger or worse than other peoples' suffering. I find resonance in the notion that we are in galut, exile from oneness with our Source -- and can relate to the destruction of the Temple as a symbol of that exile -- but surely all of humanity, not just the Jewish people, suffers from that distance-from-God. So although it's not historically the dominant interpretation of the holiday, I think of Tisha B'Av more as the day of universal exile.
Traditionally we fast on 9 Av; we chant eicha/Lamentations. (The word eicha is the first word of Lamentations, and literally means "how?") Ann Metlay has written a set of very powerful lamentations for the new millennium -- not intended to replace eicha, but to rest alongside it, expressing our generation's particular anguish and sorrow.
This commentary argues that it's relevant that we call the holiday by its numerical date and not by the name of what happened (it's 9 Av, not Destruction of the Temple Day). "Had we named Tisha b'Av after its central event, the destruction of the Temple, we would be giving the destruction of a building primacy over the anguish of human pain."
And though Rosh Hashanah seems far away, I like to think of 9 Av as the first step on the road to the High Holidays. This is the low point of the year, the nadir of our relationship with holiness, when we mourn both the loss of a point of access to God, and the seemingly endless well of human suffering. In a few weeks when the month of Elul begins, we will start to focus on the (continual) process of teshuvah, repentance and return and transformation. Maybe in order to experience real closeness with God during the Days of Awe, we need to begin our journey from as far away as we can get.