To see what hurts
July 24, 2007
Maybe I should start observing Tisha b'Av by volunteering as an emergency room chaplain. On this day, of all days in the wheel of the Jewish year, we're meant to connect with our own brokenness; with suffering and loss; and with the terrible things we do to one another around the world, hatred and violence and damage caused by our own human hands.
Eicha is beautiful poetry, and when we read it last night in the darkened sanctuary of my shul I was gently moved, but the story it tells is so distant. Besides, I have so many complicated feelings about the Temple (what it was, what it means now) that often I can't relate to the ways this holiday has traditionally been understood. But Tisha b'Av is about more than the loss of the historical Temples in historical time.
Tisha b'Av asks us to stop distracting ourselves, stop putting a good face on things, stop focusing on the bright side and actually allow ourselves to be aware of how much we can hurt. It demands a willingness to face suffering. It insists that there is theological and spiritual importance in the reality that our lives contain pain. That facing what hurts is a necessary prerequisite to the spiritual work of discernment and transformation that we are called to do. On Tisha b'Av we're supposed to see what hurts.
Do we want to live in that place all the time? Hell, no. It's not healthy and it's not wise and in general I do not advocate it. But Jewish tradition holds that, one day a year, it's not only useful but critical for us to look honestly at brokenness. To own our brokenness, communally. To acknowledge how our actions, and inactions, make us complicit in all kinds of damage. War. Famine. Poverty. The poisoning of our planet. The fall of Jerusalem 2,593 years ago, and fighting in East Timor and Afghanistan, Darfur and Somalia, the Middle East and Iraq, in recent memory and today.
On both physical and psychological levels, we know that ignoring what hurts is not a way to make it go away, and yet that's so often precisely what we do. Of course, we know also that dwelling on pain -- poking at an open sore -- can prevent the source of the pain from healing. But on this one day of our liturgical year, Jews are called to notice the pain. To let go of our coping mechanisms, stop self-medicating with food or alcohol or fantasy, and face the broken world as it is, for at least a little while.
Because only through facing that brokenness do we have any hope of making repair. I blog every year about the beautiful teaching that moshiach, the embodiment of redemption, will be born on Tisha b'Av. Only in acknowledging our brokenness can we begin the process of healing -- and when we do this wholeheartedly, we can really change our world, if we will only believe.
The hospital where I used to work was a profoundly holy place, not despite the tragedies that unfolded daily within its walls but because of how we tried to respond to them. Real compassion and love require honesty and open eyes. I can't minister to someone if I'm cringing away, trying to protect my worldview from the reality of her suffering. At Yom Kippur we each stand alone before our understanding of God, but at Tisha b'Av we are called to slog through this together. To wrestle with loss as a community, to allow ourselves a brief period of what may even be hopelessness --
-- trusting that by the end of the day, the hopelessness will begin to lift away. That when we face the inconceivable breadth and depth of human suffering together, we will also inevitably find the inconceivable breadth and depth of human love and compassion, too. That only in opening ourselves to loss can we find our way beyond it. That the only way out is through.