This year's wrestle with Tisha b'Av
August 09, 2011
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.
Some years ago, in rabbinic school, I took a class on theodicy in which we studied the book of Lamentations. One day, in class, one of my classmates chanted part of Eicha (Lamentations) according to its melancholy tune, and then another led us on a guided meditation through the experience of seeing the first temple fall and leaving shattered Jerusalem as refugees. It was incredibly powerful. It was the first time I had entered into the imagined experience of what it might have been like to live in a world in which there was one central place where offerings were made to God, and to see that central place destroyed, and to leave the white city which had been my home, hungry and terrified and footsore, following the trail of refugees to Babylon.
When Cyrus the Great ascended to the Babylonian throne, he allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the temple, which had lain in ruins for seventy years. The second temple stood for almost five hundred years, until Rome took it down. There's a teaching from mishna which holds the second temple fell because of sinat chinam, senseless hatred between us. That teaching resonates with me: not in a blame-the-victim kind of way, but in the sense that the temple was the place which represented the unity of our community, and when we lapsed into petty resentments and hatred, the unity of our community was shattered. The fall of the temple was a physical reality which reflected the internal reality we had co-created. It's not hard to look at my various communities now and to see ripples of that same problem.
Rabbi Moshe Aharon (known also as Miles Krassen) writes, in his teaching for Tisha b'Av 5771, that we can understand the whole earth as the third temple for which our community has so long yearned. In an earlier paradigm we sought to sanctify one spot on the globe; today we are called to the consciousness that the whole planet is the temple. And our planet is wounded by hatred between and among the factions of humanity, just as the temple was. In a way, Reb Moshe Aharon's teaching takes me back to the perspective I mentioned at the start of this post, that on this day we mourn the brokenness of all creation -- though he comes to that not despite the particularism of our history, but through it.
There's a rabbinic teaching that moshiach (the messiah) will be born on the afternoon of Tisha b'Av. Out of the day when we commemorate our community's deepest sufferings rises the possibility of deep and whole transformation. It reminds me of the Greek myth about Pandora opening the box (or perhaps the urn) filled with war, famine, suffering, and all manner of evil. But as a kind of consolation prize, there was one more thing at the bottom of the pile: hope. On Tisha b'Av, we face our suffering -- but there is hope for redemption at the bottom of the box.
I'm still not sure how I feel about fasting in mourning for the fall of the temples. But I know that there can be wisdom in giving myself over to spiritual practices before I wholly understand them. I'm fasting today not because I can intellectually justify the act, but because it joins me with my community (and, during daylight at least, with my Muslim friends who are fasting in observance of Ramadan.) I'm fasting today because it's a spiritual practice which I think might change me, and I won't know how it works on and in me unless I enter into it wholly. And I'm fasting today because this is the very beginning of our season of the Days of Awe, the opening parenthesis for the two-month-long phrase which will end with the closing parenthesis of the fast of Yom Kippur.
The time between Tisha b'Av and Yom Kippur... is the time between the destruction of Jerusalem -- the crumbling of the walls of the Great Temple -- and our own moral and spiritual reconstruction. The year has been building itself up, and now it begins to let go -- the natural cycle of the cosmos, the rise and fall, the impermanence and the continuity, all express themselves in this turning. The walls come down and suddenly we can see, suddenly we recognize the nature of our estrangement from God, and this recognition is the beginning of our reconciliation. We can see the image of the falling Temple -- the burning house -- that Tisha B'Av urges upon us so forcefully, precisely in this light.
(So writes Rabbi Alan Lew in This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared.) The temple, he notes, was a place with emptiness at its heart -- the holy of holies, which was only entered-into once a year by one person, the high priest who stepped inside that empty space on Yom Kippur to receive a new name for God. On Tisha b'Av, the emptiness breaks loose from that space and swallows everything up. And two months from now, on Yom Kippur, each of us has the opportunity to step inside the emptiness of the holy of holies in our own hearts, to experience what Rabbi Lew calls "the charged emptiness at the Sacred Center." Today's fast is the first step on that journey. May today help bring all of us -- our community, our communities, our world -- closer to redemption.