Tisha b'Av roundup, and a story

The nadir of the year

I've never been comfortable with Tisha b'Av. When I was growing up, my family didn't observe it; I knew it only as a figure of speech, one that suggested an eventuality unlikely to come to pass (as in, "yeah, sure, that'll happen -- maybe after Tisha b'Av," a phrase we used year-round.)

In my adult life I've come to understand the holiday intellectually, but it still challenges me emotionally. I understand why the destruction of both the first and second temples was devastating, but I see that tragedy as the catalyst which allowed Rabbinic Judaism to arise and flourish -- a painful death, in its time, but one that gave rise to a new birthing of Jewish life and potential. After the temple fell, we learned to see ourselves as a theophoric people, bearing God with us wherever we roam. Today we sanctify not space, but time. I wouldn't return to the days of the temple; how then can I legitimately grieve its destruction?

That's been my line, the last several years. But one of the best things about being a rabbinic student is that I am often called to question where I stand and why, and to push the envelope of my comfort zone. Because my rabbi is on sabbatical at the moment, I'm responsible for leading Tisha b'Av services at my shul this week. It's time for me to stop equivocating, and to find a way to relate to this uncomfortable day, because I need to be able to lead my congregation into a meaningful observance.


On a practical level -- the level of assiyah, the physical world -- Tisha b'Av marks the date of the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem. It is also, tradition teaches, the anniversary of the date when the twelve spies sent by Moses, in their cowardice, brought back a negative report and doomed the Israelites to further wandering; the anniversary of the failed Bar Kokhba revolt against Roman rule; the anniversary of the beginning of the Crusades; and the anniversary of the date when the Jews were expelled from Spain.

On an emotional level -- the level of yetzirah, thoughts and feelings -- Tisha b'Av is a day of grief. On 9 Av we join together to remember our deepest sorrows. The story of the twelve spies reminds us of our failings; the story of the fallen temples reminds us of our losses; the story of the attempted revolt against Rome reminds us of our failures. At first glance this might look like a wallow in the memory of victimhood, but I think there's an emotional truth here. There can be value in pausing once a year to remember what hurts, maybe in part because doing so inoculates us against allowing those hurts to poison our everyday reality.

On an intellectual level -- the level of beriyah, mind and thought -- Tisha b'Av is a time for contemplation. We read Eikha (Lamentations) and we force ourselves to face the memory of Jerusalem destroyed. We meditate on exile and on suffering. Maybe this year we also obligate ourselves to face the dual reality of northern Israel besieged by Hizbullah, and of southern Lebanon besieged by Israel, and the tremendous suffering on both sides of that divide.

According to the four worlds paradigm, the fourth world is atzilut, the world of essence. Tisha b'Av commemorates our distance from that holistic world of intuition and immutable connection with God. On this holiday we acknowledge how far we are from the Holy One of Blessing, and how painful that distance can be.

Tisha b'Av falls at a fascinating point in the cycle of the year. In the northern hemisphere, these are the dog days of summer. In the western world we're accustomed to thinking of the shortest day of the year as the low point, that brief and dark day when the sun is as far away as it can possibly be -- but on the Jewish calendar, the nadir of our year comes in a shimmering haze of heat.

It's explicitly a day of communal mourning, as opposed to personal mourning. On 9 Av we stand before God as a community and bemoan what is broken about our world. For some of us, that brokenness is most manifest in war. For others, that brokenness is most manifest in our distance from God -- in Reb Arthur's words, "the first and deepest exile," the existential galut that keeps us fundamentally solitary. For many of us, the two are inextricably linked; we couldn't kill if we weren't already distant from our Source.

When the Days of Awe roll around, we'll do a different kind of inner work. During Elul and the Days of Awe we are called to consider our relationship with God and with the world. We consider where we have missed the mark and how we can continue the work of growing into the people we mean to be. 9 Av is a necessary precursor to that. Before we can make teshuvah as individuals, the tradition teaches, we need to re/turn to our Source together. The ninth of Av gives us 25 hours within which to do that: to remember our sorrows, to weep for what we've lost, and to derive strength from sharing our grief.

There's a Talmudic story about Kamtza and Bar Kamtza which is often taught on Tisha b'Av. It's a story about one man's pride causing him to treat a fellow man shamefully -- which, our tradition teaches, was the deep root cause of the temple's destruction. When we fail to recognize the sparks of holiness in each other, we commit a grievous sin, and the wheel of karma spins that sin into destruction. For me, at least this year, that's the fundamental teaching of Tisha b'Av. In the rabbinic teaching that interpersonal hatred caused the temple to be destroyed, I recognize a deep truth about how our egos and petty frustrations can destroy the very foundations of our spiritual lives.

I still think the fall of the temple created space in which a fruitful period of Jewish history could arise, as new saplings sprout in the aftermath of a forest fire. But I am growing to understand why it's important to mourn the fire, even though we celebrate what its ashes fertilized. On Tisha b'Av we dip into grief together. When we come out the other side, faces wet with tears, perhaps we'll be ready to begin the uphill climb to the Days of Awe and the next phase of our liturgical year.

I've blogged before about the Talmudic teaching that on Tisha b'Av, someday moshiach will be born. In the midst of our greatest grief, the possibility of redemption arises. Within Reform Judaism today we speak in terms not of the birth of a literal and singular messiah, but of the messianic age when the work of restoring wholeness to creation will be complete. For me the notion of the messiah being born on Tisha b'Av is a metaphorical teaching, not a literal one. But regardless of how various branches of Judaism interpret the term "messiah," I find value in the notion that in our deepest sorrow, a door to transformation opens.

And I'm not sure that door opens in a way we can perceive until we open ourselves to sorrow. Until we allow ourselves to grieve what is broken in our world, we can't begin to build anew. This year may our grief be genuine -- and may it galvanize us to begin again, as we perennially need to do, in creating the relationship with God and with each other that will repair the broken world.

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