Writing about the Three Weeks for On Being
Rosh Chodesh Av; Ramadan Mubarak

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.

Rabbi Lew writes:

The Talmud claims that righteous deeds, prayer, and turning will modify the Divine Decree... The liturgy, however, makes a very different claim, namely that prayer, righteousness, and Teshuvah will not change what happens to us; rather, they will change us. We will understand what happens differently. These activities will not tear up the decree; rather, they will transform (ma'avirin) the evil of the decree. Spiritual practice won't change what happens. Rather, it will help us to experience what happens not as evil, but simply as what happens.

He's talking about the Untaneh Tokef prayer (which I posted about back in 2005), which takes a claim from Talmud -- that righteous deeds, prayer, and teshuvah will modify God's decree of what each person's fate will be -- and turns it in a new way. It's not that our deeds and our prayers and our turning will change our fate (or our karma, if you will.) But these things can change how we experience what comes to pass. Spiritual practice doesn't change our future; it changes how we relate to the future we get.

Later, Rabbi Lew writes that the journey of these two months isn't unique to this time of year. What's unique is our mindfulness of the journey we're always already on:

These two months merely stood for something that was going on all the time. The business of transformation was going on all the time. It never stopped. The two-month period in question was merely a time when we focused on it, when we gave form to something invisible that lay dormant but was possible to awaken at every moment of our lives.

So the walls of our great house are crumbling all the time, and not just in midsummer at Tisha b'Av, when we mourn the destruction of the Temple. Every moment of our lives, the sacred house of our life -- the constructs by which we live and to which we hold on so fiercely -- nevertheless falls away. Every moment, we take in a breath and the world comes into being, and we let out a breath and the world falls away...

And the time of transformation is always upon us. The world is always cracking through the shell of its egg to be open. The gate between heaven and earth is always creaking open. The Book of Life and the Book of Death are open every day, and our name is written in one or the other of them at every moment, and then erased and written again the moment after that. We are constantly becoming, continuously redefining ourselves.

The walls of our great house are crumbling all the time. That feels true to me on so many levels. The houses of our bodies are always crumbling -- they're beautiful, but they're not permanent. The houses of our intellects, the constructs we erect to keep us feeling safe and contained -- these too are temporary. The temple is always falling, though only on this one day do we allow ourselves to experience it in such an intense way.

And, that also means that rebirth is always happening, too. That something new is always coming into being. I find that endlessly comforting.

Lew quotes Rabbi Soloveitchik in order to make the point that Tisha b'Av is the beginning of the process of Teshuvah, repentance / return:

Soloveitchik wrote:

When man sins he creates a distance between himself and God. To sin means to remove oneself from the presence of the Master of the Universe. I was standing before you and Sin came and estranged me from you and I no longer feel that I am "before You." The whole essence of the precept of repentance is longing, yearning, pining to return again. Longing develops only when one has lost something precious. Sin pushes us far away and stimulates our longing to return...

So Tisha b'Av, the day when we remember our estrangement from God, is the beginning of the process of Teshuvah. This very estrangement is the engine that drives us on our journey back home, back to God.

For me, this sets Tisha b'Av into a new context. It's not just about remembering the fall of the Temple -- or, for that matter, remembering all of the other calamities which our sages tell us took place on this day, from the spies' false report to the fall of both Temples to the failed Bar Kokhba revolt to the expulsion from England and, later, Spain. It is those things. But it's also about recognizing our estrangement from God, and making the existential leap of choosing to turn toward connection again.

Here's one of the most interesting passages in these chapters, for me:

The destruction of the Temple and the exile it occasioned were signal calamities, and the tendency to telescope calamities around this date served to give form to a significant spiritual feeling, the sense that the same thing was happening over and over again but in slightly different form, and the corresponding feeling that our unresolved tendencies -- the unconscious wrong turns we keep taking -- carry us back to the same point on our spiritual path again and again...

Rambam, the great medieval philosopher and synthesizer of Jewish law, said that Teshuvah, this kind of moral and spiritual turning, is only complete when we find ourselves in exactly the same position we were in when we went wrong -- when the state of alienation and estrangement began -- and we choose to behave differently, in a way that is conducive to atonement and reconciliation. But this objection was raised: What happens if the circumstances in question don't repeat themselves? How do we make complete Teshuvah then? Don't worry, the Rambam replied. They always do. The unresolved elements of our lives -- the unconscious patterns, the conflicts and problems that seem to arise no matter where we go or with whom we find ourselves -- continue to pull us into the same moral and spiritual circumstances over and over again until we figure out how to resolve them.

I love this reading of Rambam. Heraclitus may have argued that you never step into the same river twice, but Rambam says that we all do, all the time. And this is precisely why and how teshuvah is possible! Think about the essential conflicts in your life, the places where you get stuck: how do they repeat? How does something that pushes your puttons now link back to something which pushed your buttons last year, five years ago, twenty years ago? How do your relationships now replicate your relationships from before now? This is human nature. We keep bringing ourselves back to the same situations until we figure out a new way to resolve them.

This is not to say that everything which goes wrong in our lives is our fault. But it does suggest that we need to take responsibility for our part in responding to the patterns which keep playing out in our lives. Rabbi Lew writes:

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?

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.

Intellectually, I can tell you that the second Temple fell because Rome had unbeatable military might. But spiritually I find meaning in the teaching that the second Temple fell because of sinat chinam, hatred between and among our people. Does that mean that we actually brought the building down? Obviously not. But there is a spiritual truth, I think, in the notion that when we fell into the well-worn groove of hating each other, we became complicit in the Temple's destruction. That when we fall into our own well-worn interpersonal grooves today, we become complicit in the painful patterns which repeat in our own lives. And that the way out of those painful patterns is to make ourselves mindful and to take the conscious step of getting out of those ruts. In other words, making teshuvah.

The final point of Rabbi Lew's that I want to share here and now is that the fall of the Temple was painful -- but also transformative.

Something remained when the Temple was destroyed two thousand years ago. This was perhaps the most significant turning point in Jewish history. Judaism continued without the Temple, an inconceivable possibility at the time. But the truth is that if the Temple had never been destroyed, the renewal Judaism needed so badly could never have taken place...

So the Torah tells us seven times. V'neifen, u-finu -- and they turned, now you turn. What is required of us at Tisha b'Av is a simple turn of mind, a turn toward consciousness, a turn away from denial, from the inertia, from the passive momentum of our lives, a turn away from those things that continue to happen unconsciously, and a conscious decision to change. A letting go, letting the walls of identity crumble, and turning toward that which remains.

Suffering happens. But it doesn't have to be meaningless. We can find meaning, or make meaning, even in moments of pain. When something beloved falls, there is loss, and there is also spaciousness for something new to arise.

I welcome any thoughts, reflections, or questions which these passages bring forth in you.