An internet parable about kindness for Tisha b'Av

TextWhen one person is unkind to another, a whole world can be destroyed.

Once there was a woman who belonged to an intimate and dedicated online community, where for many years people had congregated to share their writing and to support each other through life's troubles and travails.

She had a friend in that community named Jane, and an enemy named Janeway. One day she decided to throw a party in IRC, and she invited members of the community. She meant to invite her friend Jane, but her email program auto-filled the wrong email address and the invitation went to Janeway instead.

So the party got underway, people were hanging out and watching streaming video and having a blast -- and the host noticed Janeway's nick in the list of participants. She was incensed, and instead of yelling at Janeway in a private channel, she accosted her in all-caps where everyone could see. "YOU! You tell untrue stories about me," she wrote. "What are you doing here? GET OUT!"

Janeway typed, "Look, I'm already here -- let me stay, and I'll chip in toward the costs of the party." The woman said, hell no. "Then let me pay for half of the party," Janeway wheedled. No, said the woman. "Then let me pay for the whole thing," Janeway offered.  With no further ado, the woman publicly booted Janeway from the chat server and password-protected the room so she couldn't get back in.

Continue reading "An internet parable about kindness for Tisha b'Av" »

Tisha b'Av begins tonight

2651898311_c55789ec7f_mTonight at sundown we enter into Tisha b'Av, a communal day of mourning. On Tisha b'Av we remember the fall of the First Temple in 586 BCE, and the fall of the Second Temple in 70 CE; we remember pogroms and tragedies throughout our history; we remember human suffering writ large; we recognize the brokenness in all creation; we enter into a process of communal teshuvah, repentance/return. For many of us this is a day of fasting and contemplation.

On the afternoon of Tisha b'Av, tradition tells us, Moshiach will be born -- our deepest hopes for redemption, entering our world at our moment of greatest mourning and sorrow. And beginning on the day after Tisha b'Av, we count forty-nine days -- seven weeks -- until Rosh Hashanah, the new year.

In the Tisha b'Av category on this blog are my writings about this day from the last several years, including a few poems (I am partial to As Tisha b'Av Approaches, 2012 and After the fall, 2011); an essay written the first year I fasted on Tisha b'Av (This year's wrestle with Tisha b'Av, 2011); and a series of vignettes from one year's observance at my small shul (Three scenes from Tisha b'Av, 2009.)

I also recommend The journey from estrangement to love to return, a post by Rabbi Sara Leya Schley of Jewish Renewal community Chochmat HaLev. She writes:

Tomorrow night is the 9th of Av, the culmination of period of consciously connecting with our estrangement from self, community and the Divine. Symbolized by the destruction of the Temple, Tisha b’Av brings us to confront what it means to live without a spiritual home, without the place where Shekhinah (the Divine Presence) is always waiting for us. By awakening to our suffering – personal and historical, we create an opening to profound self-awareness. Encountering and embracing the shadow diminishes the power of fear over our psyche.

The wisdom of our Tradition teaches us that mourning our losses, deeply feeling and acknowledging our brokenness in body, mind and soul, creates the opening for renewal. On this darkest of days, Moshiah is born: from the depths of destruction, springs the hope of transformation and redemption. Leonard Cohen famously reminds us "there's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in"...

Her whole post is worth reading. In another interpretation (because if there's one thing to know about Judaism, it's that we always have other interpretations, other ways of understanding things) Tisha b'Av is a day of mourning the ways in which not only the Temple was destroyed, but our whole planet is in danger of destruction. Rabbi Arthur Waskow's Eicha for the Earth: the Text a Ceremony of Sorrow, Hope, & Action at The Shalom Center is an excellent read on that front.

Whatever your understanding of this day, and whatever your Tisha b'Av practices are: may your Tisha b'Av be meaningful and profound, a doorway into the transformation of the holy season which is about to begin.



Photo is mine, from 2008; Stones, wall, shrubs, taken at Robinson's Arch. The fallen stones were hurled down from the Temple Mount when the Romans sacked the Temple in 70 C.E. 

New month of Av and Ramadan

18Chodesh tov: a good new (lunar) month to all. Today's new moon brings us into the month of Av on the Jewish calendar. We're moving further into our journey toward the Days of Awe. One week from tonight/tomorrow we'll observe Tisha b'Av, remembering the fall of both Temples and acknowledging the sorrow, loss, and brokenness we experience in our lives and in the world. For me, Tisha b'Av is when we really begin the journey toward the Days of Awe.

Between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah there are seven weeks. Rosh Hashanah is the 50th day after Tisha b'Av, as Shavuot is the 50th day after Pesach. Some have the practice of doing a kind of reverse Omer count during these seven weeks -- I wrote about that a little bit in my editor's introduction to Shifrah Tobacman's Omer/Teshuvah. Like the period of the Omer, the seven weeks between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah are a period of introspection and deep soul-work.

As we enter the month of Av, our Muslim cousins are entering the month of Ramadan. (That was true last year, too.) This is the last time that our fast day of Tisha b'Av will coincide with their fasting month of Ramadan for a while. In the coming Jewish year of 5774, we'll have a "leap month" -- a whole extra month, which is to say, two months of Adar instead of only one -- which means that the Jewish holidays will move forward on the Gregorian calendar by a month. The Muslim calendar is purely lunar, not lunisolar, so when we gain an extra month, they don't... which means that our fasting won't be in synch again for many years.

Ramadan+e-belgique+1For me, there is something particularly meaningful about engaging in fasting and repentance on Tisha b'Av when it coincides with Ramadan and I know that the spiritual children of Ishmael are fasting and praying along with the spiritual children of Isaac. Our two traditions have many powerful and meaningful teachings in common. (I'm still grateful for the experience of the Emerging Jewish and Muslim Religious Leaders retreat back in 2009, which I wrote about in the essay Allah is the Light: Prayer in Ramadan and Elul.) Especially for those of us who pay attention to the Middle East, it's easy to get caught up in news stories about Jewish-Muslim conflict -- but that's not the only paradigm for our two religious communities. Maybe the experience of fasting alongside one another this Tisha b'Av and Ramadan can help us experience our similarities anew.

Want to know more about this new month on the Jewish calendar? The name Av means "father." One mystical tradition (found in the Sefer Yetzirah) associates this month with the letter tet / ט (which, since Hebrew letters are also numbers, corresponds to the number nine.) This letter is understood to resemble the shape of a womb. I love that the month whose name means "father" is associated with the womb -- what a beautiful encapsulation of the gender-bending (or gender-transcending) realities of God! (The masculine God-name HaRachaman / The Merciful One shares a root with rechem / womb, so there's a way in which our tradition is always engaging in this kind of gender-bending God-talk. I wrote about that a few years ago -- Returning to the divine womb.)

The Sefer Yetzirah also associates different months with different senses. The special sense of last month, Tammuz, was sight; the sense of this month is hearing.

"To hear" in Hebrew means "to understand," to fully integrate into one's consciousness (into one's heart, not only to understand intellectually in one's mind). To hear another is to fully understand his dilemma and emphasize with him...

The sense of hearing is the sense of inner balance. (Imbalance is the source of all fall and destruction). A well balanced ear, a well oriented sense of hearing, possesses the ability to discern and distinguish in everything one hears truth from falseness, as is said (Job 12:11 and 34:3): "the ear discerns words"/ ozen malin tivchan (the initial letters of this phrase spell emet--"truth").

The word Av contains the first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet: alef, beit, which are the first letters of the words emunah and bitachon, "faith" and "trust." This month we strive to return to our beginnings, to the alef from which all creation unfolds, and to find faith and trust there.

adapted from various teachings about Av at

As we move into the month of Av and Ramadan, may we truly be able to hear one another -- not despite our differences but in and through them. May we empathize with one another. May we find inner balance. May we experience faith and trust. And whether or not we fast from eating on Tisha b'Av or during Ramadan, may we fast from unkindness, from ingratitude, from our worst inclinations. May we take advantage of this month and cultivate our hearts and spirits to serve God and to serve the world.

Chodesh tov / Ramadan mubarak!

Here's a blessing for the new month -- in Hebrew, transliteration, and English -- written by Marcia Falk: Prayer for the New Month.

New Torah poem - inspired by the book of Ezra



It's a hot day in Jerusalem.
Workmen wipe sweat, straining
to lift limestone into place.

A brass band: priests in white linen
playing polished trumpets,
Levites smashing cymbals in praise.

Old men weep who remember
when the rubble was whole
and teenagers scream for joy.

They don't know
that jealousy will stop
their construction in its tracks

that some unpaid scribe
will need to hunt the stacks
for a memorandum of permission

that this house too will fall
and the people will scatter
like cornmeal on a baking stone.

Today they celebrate: God
is on our side!
No one imagines
how much harder their story will get.

This poem arises out of the story of the rebuilding of the Temple, found in the book of Ezra, chapter 3 through chapter 6.

There's something very poignant for me about imagining the rebuilding of the Temple after the years of the Babylonian Exile. Those who remembered the first Temple must have been overwhelmed with joy to see their dreams take shape again.

From the vantage point of where we are now, it's easy to think of the two temples as almost a unit. There was a Temple in Jerusalem, and it was built twice, and then it fell, and Judaism has never been the same. But there was a moment in time when the second one was built, and no one knew it was going to fall just like the first one did.

For all that I cherish the shapes and forms of rabbinic Judaism (and I do!) -- and could not imagine returning to sacrificing animals on a stone altar again -- I can imagine how crushing it must have been when the House of God was toppled.

Thinking about the story of this rebuilding, I find myself holding my breath.

Tisha b'Av, the day when we remember the fall of both temples, falls this weekend and will be observed starting on Saturday night.

A prayer from Reb Zalman for Tisha b'Av

Here's a prayer for Tisha b'Av, written by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a.k.a. Reb Zalman.

This comes from the Reb Zalman Legacy Project blog; in this post he explains the origin of this prayer. It's meant to be recited on Tisha b'Av, the day when we mourn both fallen Temples, which this year begins on Saturday, July 28, at sundown. I find it both beautiful and meaningful; I hope you do too.


Rosh Chodesh Av; Ramadan Mubarak

A sliver of new moon.

This morning I woke to an email from Rabbi Arthur Waskow which began:

Tonight (July 19, 2012), as the New Moon glimmers, the Jewish and Muslim communities both enter a solemn month, known to one as Ramadan and the other as Av. In both, fasting takes on great importance as a way of focusing spiritual energy.

During the whole month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. As they do, they turn their attention from material gain and physical pleasures to the call of God to serve the poor, to work for justice, to meditate on what is deep joy rather than immediate pleasure...

Jews enter the month of Av with an eye toward its ninth day, Tisha B'Av, a day of lament for the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem. On that day, Jews fast for 24 hours, from sunset to sunset of the next day. This year the ninth day of Av falls on Shabbat; so the fast and lamentation are postponed to begin after Shabbat on Saturday night, July 28, leading into Sunday, July 29.

Read the whole thing at the Shalom Center website: When Ramadan and Av unite.

The Muslim calendar is purely lunar; the Jewish calendar is lunisolar. (What does that mean? Here's the Wikipedia entry on the Hebrew calendar -- basically, we insert a "leap month" in 7 out of 19 years to keep our spring festivals in the northern-hemisphere spring, and our fall festivals in the northern-hemisphere fall. As previously noted, the rabbis who originated our calendar were clearly not thinking about life in the global South.) Ramadan moves around the solar calendar year; a few years ago it overlapped with the Jewish month of Elul (see Allah is the Light: Prayer in Ramadan and Elul, 2009.) And this year Ramadan overlaps with the lunar month of Av.

I had the feeling I had written about that particular confluence before, too, so I checked my own archives. Sure enough, last year Av and Ramadan coincided as well, and I wrote:

In the confluence of our calendars this year I find a powerful reminder that we and our Muslim cousins -- descendants, our tradition says, of the half-brothers Yitzchak and Yishmael, Isaac and Ishmael -- are walking parallel paths toward the Holy Blessed One. During the coming lunar month, as the moon waxes and wanes, both communities (in our varied forms -- Jews whose practice ranges from Reform to Hasidic, in Israel and in Diaspora; Muslims of Arab, South Asian, African American, and every other descent, all around the world) will be engaging in prayer, in fasting, and in giving generously to those in need, in order to more wholly align ourselves with God's will.

Read the whole post: Approaching Av...and Ramadan.

To my Jewish friends and readers I wish a meaningful month of Av, replete with awareness of our communal journey from the depths of sorrow (during this last of the Three Weeks and through Tisha b'Av) into comfort and joy. And to my Muslim friends and readers, a blessed Ramadan! May both of our communities find blessing in this month of prayer and reflection, and may this month strengthen our sense of our common ground.

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.

Continue reading "This is real, and I want to be prepared: beginning the journey" »

This year's wrestle with Tisha b'Av

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.

Continue reading "This year's wrestle with Tisha b'Av" »

On fasting (Tisha b'Av and Kazim Ali's "Fasting for Ramadan")

Slowly but surely, I'm reading Fasting for Ramadan: Notes from a Spiritual Practice by Kazim Ali, a set of short meditative essays written during the experience of fasting for Ramadan, published by Tupelo Press.

I've never experienced a fast like Ramadan. A whole month of daytime fasting: the idea is foreign to me. Though of course I have fasted; the vast majority of Jews fast on Yom Kippur, and many fast also on other fast days (among them Tisha b'Av, which begins tonight.)

I've been thinking lately about the fast of Tisha b'Av as the beginning of the journey which culminates in the fast of Yom Kippur. My hevruta partner David and I realized, last week, that the two are 60 days apart. First comes Tisha b'Av, when we fast in mourning for the fallen temples. Then we count 49 days, a kind of parallel to the Counting of the Omer, and the 50th day is Rosh Hashanah, the new year. Ten days after that comes Yom Kippur, the fast at the far end of the journey. How different might that Yom Kippur fast feel if one entered into it having willingly and consciously undertaken this sixty-day journey of transformation, bookended by a fast at either end?

There's something powerful about reading Ali's meditations now as I anticipate my own fasts. Ali writes beautifully about the experience of fasting: what it's like for him physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually. Here's a taste, from the seventh day of Ramadan:

When you say "One time," in a story, you mean a time that happened in the past, but one you are still living in, living at that very moment. How often have you caught a whiff of patchouli, seen someone wearing a yellow scarf, heard the Indigo Girls singing "Love's Recovery" -- and suddenly you are gone, out of the present, backward in time, some other place, miles away, how easy it is to be transported, how slight our connection to our body is, as an entity in space.

The fast is a permanent "one time," because you are disconnected from the physical network of food and exchange of mass and matter that connects all the physical universe. You are a mere ghost, hovering, breathing the air in and out, not partaking, but affecting the world nonetheless with your karmic actions, even with your breathing.

One of the things I appreciate about sitting in meditation is the extent to which meditation allows me to gently notice the frenetic antics of my own mind. Fasting is a little bit like that, too, I think. Pausing from my regular consumption helps me take stock of that consumption and of the ways in which I allow it to control me. Though that's an intellectual exercise; part of what I'm loving about Ali's book is how it opens up his physical, emotional, and spiritual experience of the Ramadan fast. Fasting is such a strange experience: deeply embodied, on the one hand, and on the other hand lifting me out of my body and into a kind of fugue state.

Anyway. I wish a continued Ramadan kareem to my friends who are celebrating. And to those who will be fasting tonight and tomorrow for Tisha b'Av, may your fast be meaningful... and may we Jews and Muslims, perhaps, find connection with one another in our mutual experience of fasting, and may that fast bring all of us closer to God.

R' Alan Lew on taking responsibility for our patterns

The (second) temple in Jerusalem, writes Rabbi Alan Lew (of blessed memory) in his excellent book This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, fell to the Romans not because of hatred between/among Jews (as the mishna would have it), but because Rome was so powerful that nothing could stand in its way. And surely the rabbis of the Talmud knew this about the Roman Empire. So why did they cast blame on the children of Israel? Why blame themselves for what was clearly beyond their power?

Lew's response rings in me like a shofar call. He writes that to spiritual leaders, the only question worth asking about any recurring catastrophe is: how am I complicit in this, and how can I keep it from happening again? This is true, of course, not only on a national level, but on a personal one, as well:

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? Why can't I just let it slough off me like water off a duck's back, as I am able to do with so many other things?

...Why do our relationships always fail in precisely the same way? Why do we always fall into the same kind of conflict at work? Why do we always have the same arguments with our children? With our parents? ...What is the recurring disaster in our life? What is the unresolved element that keeps bringing us back to this same moment over and over again? What is it that we keep getting wrong? What is it that we persistently fail to look at, fail to see?

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.

I don't know about you, but this is exactly what I needed to read today. (And apparently that too is something which recurs for me; I just read the post I wrote about this book back in 2006, seasonal teachings from Rabbi Alan Lew, and sure enough, one of the quotes I just lifted up is in that post, too...)

This is, I think, part of the hard work of teshuvah (repentance / return.) In order to make teshuvah, to turn myself in the right direction again, I need to be willing to take a good hard look at myself and my patterns. I need to take responsibility for whatever recurs for me emotionally and interpersonally. Which isn't to say that I alone am responsible for everything that unfolds, or that I should castigate myself for my failings -- that would be a dangerous misreading of the teachings of this season. But Tisha b'Av calls me, calls us, to recognize the ways in which we are complicit in the things which are broken in our lives.

After the fall - a poem for Tisha b'Av

It's Rosh Chodesh Av, the first day of the new month of Av. Tisha b'Av is coming soon.

At my synagogue, we'll read Lamentations alongside a few more contemporary poems of sorrow. Usually we read Yehuda Amichai's "God has mercy upon the nursery school children" and Toge Sankichi's "At the First-Aid Station," both of which are extraordinary. It feels chutzpahdik to place one of my own poems in this company; I haven't decided yet whether or not we're going to read this poem at our 9 Av observance. But I wanted to share the poem here in case it speaks to any of you.

(Feel free to share this poem -- all I ask is that you attach my name and URL so that people know where to find it and where to find me.)



The mishna says
senseless hatred
knocked the Temple down

not the Romans with their siege engines --
or not only them, but
our ancestors too

who slipped into petty backbiting
ignored Shabbat
forgot how to offer their hearts

we're no better
we who secretly know we're right

we who roll our eyes
and patronize, who check email
even on the holiest of days

who forget that
a prayer is more than a tune
more than words on a page

in Oslo parents weep
and we're too busy arguing
motive to comfort them

across the Middle East parents weep
and we're too busy arguing
borders to comfort them

in our nursing homes parents weep
shuddering and alone
and we're too busy --

even now what sanctuaries
what human hearts
are damaged and burned

while we snipe at each other
or insist we're not responsible
or look away?

Approaching Av... and Ramadan

On the Jewish calendar, next week we'll enter the month of Av. Av is a month of introspection. On the 9th of Av we observe a communal day of fasting and mourning in remembrance of the two fallen temples in Jerusalem and in remembrance of our communal suffering from the crusades to pogroms. Some see Tisha b'Av as a day to recognize the brokenness of creation writ large. And from there, we count 49 days until Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. These seven weeks, taken together, offer a picture of what the Hasidim call "descent for the sake of ascent" -- from the spiritual depths of 9 Av, we are newly able to make the spiritual ascent into and through the month of Elul to the Days of Awe. From Tisha b'Av to Rosh Hashanah unfold seven weeks during which we can do the internal work of tefilah, teshuvah, u-tzedakah -- prayer, repentance / turning-toward-God, and giving to the needy, which our liturgy teaches us can sweeten the severity of divine justice in our lives.

On the Muslim calendar, the lunar month which will begin next week is the month of Ramadan. Ramadan too is a month of introspection; of fasting, prayer, and giving alms to the needy. A time during which Muslims strive to align themselves with the will of God and to become conscious of God's presence in the world and in their lives.

Ramadan and Av do not always coincide. A few years ago, when I was blessed to attend a Retreat for Emerging Jewish and Muslim Leaders, Ramadan coincided with the month of Elul, which immediately prececes the Days of Awe. (I wrote an essay about that: Allah is the Light: Prayer in Ramadan & Elul.) Both the Muslim calendar and the Jewish one measure months by the moon, but the Jewish calendar is metonic; seven years out of every nineteen we insert a "leap month," which keeps our calendar more-or-less aligned with the solar one. So our high holidays always fall in the northern hemisphere autumn, and Pesach always falls in northern hemisphere spring. (The rabbis who designed our calendar were, alas, not thinking about the needs of Jews in the global South!) The Muslim calendar doesn't have this kind of correction mechanism, so Muslim holidays move around the solar calendar; this year Ramadan begins around August 1, next year it will begin around July 20, the year after that around July 10, and so on.

In the confluence of our calendars this year I find a powerful reminder that we and our Muslim cousins -- descendants, our tradition says, of the half-brothers Yitzchak and Yishmael, Isaac and Ishmael -- are walking parallel paths toward the Holy Blessed One. During the coming lunar month, as the moon waxes and wanes, both communities (in our varied forms -- Jews whose practice ranges from Reform to Hasidic, in Israel and in Diaspora; Muslims of Arab, South Asian, African American, and every other descent, all around the world) will be engaging in prayer, in fasting, and in giving generously to those in need, in order to more wholly align ourselves with God's will.

I love that our two religious communities share a vision of how we can make use of the practices of prayer, fasting, and tzedakah / zakat in order to realign ourselves toward God. And I love that this year, Jews and Muslims the world over will be entering into a sacred season of doing this spiritual work at the same time. May we give one another strength and blessing in the weeks ahead!

Recommended reading for the season:

  • 30 mosques - a Ramadan road trip to 30 different mosques all over the USA. A beautiful set of anecdotes and photographs which illustrate the diversity of American Muslim life and practice.

  • Prayers for the Ninth of Av - Reb Zalman's prayer, meant to be offered on the afternoon of Tisha b'Av when our grief begins to give way to hope for transformation. I especially like how his prayer touches on Jerusalem / Al-Quds.

  • Hungry for Ramadan - My friend Shahed Amanullah of altmuslim blogged daily through the month of Ramadan in 2007; these are his posts on Beliefnet.

  • New moon ritual for Elul - An earth-based Jewish ritual for the new moon which will come 3 weeks in to our 7-week journey from 9 Av to the Days of Awe.

Tisha b'Av and sounds of sorrow

The fallen stones date to the destruction of the second temple.

Tisha b'Av begins tonight at sundown. 

At the end of last year's post about the day -- Three scenes from Tisha b'Av -- I touched on the teaching from Talmud (tractate Yoma) that the second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam / senseless hatred (usually understood as hatred between Jews) and listed some of last year's egregious examples. It saddens me that I can reprise that teaching now with some of this year's instances of Jews being hateful to Jews: Anat Hoffman's recent arrest in Jerusalem for the "crime" of carrying a Torah scroll near the Kotel, the passage of a new conversion bill in the Israeli Knesset which gives the Orthodox Israeli rabbinate increased authority over who is considered a "real" Jew in the land of Israel. (That bill has troubling implications indeed.) Obviously we haven't solved the problem of sinat chinam quite yet.

My classmate Jonathan Zasloff has written an essay entitled What are you doing for assarah b'av? (Assarah b'av is the 10th of Av, the day which follows the mournful 9 Av.) He writes:

The time has come for us to acknowledge the dirty little secret of Tisha B’Av: the destruction of the Temple was one of the best things ever to happen to the Jewish people.

His essay is intentionally provocative, I think, but he's right that many blessings have arisen out of the paradigm shift occasioned by the Temple's fall. I've written before about the wondrous flowerings of post-Temple Judaism: rabbinic Judaism, diaspora Judaism, today's many-splendored variations on our religious theme. These are among the births which that death made possible. I have no yearning to restore temple sacrifice.

But I still find meaning in Tisha b'Av. Because we've all experienced the fall of walls and the destruction of something we loved. And once a year, together, we relive that experience -- we go down as a community into that pit of despair -- in order to remember that devastation and then rise up again. The spiritual work of the coming month of Elul, during which we prepare ourselves for the Days of Awe and strive to make teshuvah (to re/turn toward our Source), has a different valance when we come to it bearing the memories of a day of deep communal sorrow. Judaism calls us not to shy away from what hurts, but to confront it, to go deep into it -- and then to make our way out of it. This is part of our spiritual life too.

The destruction of the Temple so long ago may not feel relevant to some of us today, especially to we who prize the Diaspora Judaism which arose as a result of the Temple's fall. It's easy to argue that the fall of the Temple was a necessary birth-pang of the new paradigm. But I don't think Tisha b'Av is "just" about what happened then. Buildings fall and suffering continues in our own day, too. Via this post at Jewschool last year I learned about Rabbi Irwin Kula's recording of 9/11 voicemails -- from those on the planes, from those at the World Trade Center -- using Eicha trope [mp3], the traditional cantillation used for the Book of Lamentations which we read today in our 9 Av commemorations.

Above is an embedded media player which will allow you to listen to R' Kula's voicemail chanting. If you're reading this via an aggregator or via email and can't see the embed, you can go directly to the recording here.

Part of what makes the recording so devastating is the profound ordinariness of the messages. The little things we say to one another when we don't know the end is coming. Of course, I'm primed to find this melody especially poignant -- but I imagine it might resonate even for those who've never heard Eicha before. And these messages of sorrow, chanted in Eicha trope, give me a different perspective on the deaths chronicled in Lamentations -- and the needless deaths happening even now.

May listening to these words add power to your Tisha b'Av observance. May we together descend into darkness...and find our way again, by tomorrow's end, into the light.

Three scenes from Tisha b'Av


Five people are sitting on the sanctuary floor; three are still in their chairs. The lights are dimmed: it's bright enough to see our prayerbooks and our little booklets containing Lamentations and several poems, but the room is noticeably dark. Outside, torrential rains pour down.

We take turns reading Lamentations aloud. At the beginning of each chapter, one person chants the first half-dozen verses according to the haunting tune only used on this one day of the year; then we go around the room, reading the poem in English.

Jackboots have marched in the Temple where barbarous hands have besmirched the sacred objects and fouled the holy places where fear and respect should have kept them away.

It's "jackboots" that gets to me. Intellectually I know that this chapter, like most of the poem, is an alphabetic acrostic and the translator needs to ensure that each verse begins with a new letter. Between the I verse and the K verse comes the J verse. But emotionally, that doesn't matter. The image of jackbooted thugs walking cavalierly into sacred places, kicking things over, trashing what is loved, will not leave me.

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More resources for Tisha b'Av

Rabbi Jill Hammer, of Tel Shemesh, has written A Midrash on the Month of Av, newly-published at Zeek, which speaks of the womb as the holy temple:

The temple is in exile, and this may be why midwives are scarce, birth takes place in the realm of the sick, and healers know better how to cut open the womb than to deliver a baby from it.   Many labor without delivering: the gate opens too slowly.  The heart rate plunges, the emergency unfolds, the exit from the womb comes with a breach in the wall.  One-third of all births are Caesarean births.  We have lost the keys to the temple.  

We have lost the sounds of the temple, the murmuring of the rituals and the voices of prayer.  Women become pregnant and they tell no one, for fear they will have to tell that there was a miscarriage.  They feel joy and do not speak.  They are sick, they vomit, they do not explain.  They go to work, they care for others. There are no stories of birth on television, only stories of doctors who bravely catch babies as they emerge from somewhere.  The temple is silent.  Who will open up this silence? 

Her essay speaks to me in powerful ways, for reasons which are probably obvious. Beyond that, I admire her radical revisioning of what it might mean -- especially for women -- to be in mourning for the temple we have lost.

And Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, teacher of my teachers, offers Prayers for the Ninth of Av. He notes that during the afternoon mincha service, when tradition holds that the transformation begins to be possible, we add a special prayer for Jerusalem to the amidah (central standing prayer.) He offers a new prayer in place of the traditional one. In English, his prayer begins:

Comfort, Yah our God,
all who mourn your sacred house,
who grieve the holy wholeness it contained.
Comfort especially those who live most closely
in the shadow of its memory,
amidst the shattered sacredness of Your Holy
City, the city of many names and owners;
Capital of the state of Israel,
the beginnings of our redemption,
Al Quds, the apple of the eye of Palestine...

I appreciate that his prayer acknowledges Jerusalem's dual identity. If peace is ever to come to the Middle East, we will all need to acknowledge that "our" holy city is also "their" holy city, and that we and they need to find a way to honor her through living side by side. Anyway, whether or not you'll be praying a formal mincha amidah tomorrow, I recommend Reb Zalman's prayer, which you can read in Hebrew and in English at his blog post.

And finally -- if you're not in a place where you can listen to the chanting of Eicha/Lamentations on Tisha b'Av, you can hear the whole poem sung in Hebrew according to the haunting melody used only on Tisha b'Av here at or here at Len Fellman's website. Len has also set Simon Zucker's "Lamentation on the Holocaust" to Eicha trope -- a beautiful example of setting an English-language text to fit the carrier-wave of classical cantillation.

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Preparing for Tisha b'Av

Tisha b'Av begins tomorrow night at sundown. Jewish tradition holds that five major catastrophes have fallen on this date, including the destruction of both the First and Second Temples.

The authors of the mishna (the name means "repetition" or "second" -- it is the kernel at the heart of Talmud, and was redacted around 200 C.E.) lived after the Second Temple was destroyed, and they were preoccupied with the cause of the calamity. They tell us that the First Temple fell to the Babylonians in 586 BCE because of the community's high rate of idolatry, sexual immorality and bloodshed. The second Temple fell to the Romans in 70 CE, they wrote, because of sinat chinam -- causeless hatred.

In later Talmudic sources, the rabbis offered a variety of other explanations for the Temple's fall: the community failed to keep Shabbat, no longer recited the shema with appropriate intention, treated scholars with contempt, and so on. Each of these arguments tells us something about who the sages of that era were and what mattered to them -- and it's telling that it doesn't seem to have occurred to them that the Temples fell because the Babylonian and Roman armies were simply too strong to fend off. They were looking for theological reasons for the destruction, because if it were our community's sin which brought about the destruction, then surely our teshuvah (repentance/return to God) would cause us to be raised up again. (My thanks are due to Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, who articulated these teachings in a recent e-bulletin from the Conservative Yeshiva where I studied last summer.)

My own theology differs from that of the sages of the Mishnaic era. I see the fall of the temples as the incredibly painful birth pangs of a new era. Without the temple at our tradition's heart, we evolved rabbinic Judaism: a creative -- and portable -- transformation of our paradigm for communal living, prayer, and connection with God. From the vantage point of modernity, I can see the blessing which we were able to wrest from the rubble. I wouldn't go back to what we had before. But I find value in gathering with my community once a year to mourn our old losses, and to mourn the brokenness of the world in which we still live. To dive into the reality of human suffering, and to grapple again with the question of how to give our suffering meaning.

Take note of the place where this holiday falls in our festival cycle. This is the low point of our year. From here we begin the slow climb up to the month of Elul (an opportunity to spend four weeks in spiritual preparation for the Days of Awe) and then come the big holidays of (northern hemisphere) autumn, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and Sukkot. In some ways, 9 Av is the very beginning of the road to those celebrations. We're eager for the rejoicing of the festivals we know are coming, but we can't get there without being here first. This is our day for mourning galut, exile -- not only (or maybe not at all) exile from the site of the Temple, but the existential exile of living in an imperfect and disconnected world. That's spiritual work we need to do each year before we can be ready to move into the high holiday season.

Tomorrow night at my shul we'll read from Eikha (Lamentations) and we'll read contemporary kinnot, poems of lament. Along those lines, if you're looking for appropriate reading for 9 Av, don't miss Aryeh Cohen's gorgeous and heartbreaking new contemporary Kinah; you might also find value in Rabbi Daniel Brenner's Third Temple meditation, and in Rabbi Daniel Seidenberg's Laments: A Fresh Translation of Eikhah, available as a PDF and as a DavkaWriter file. Whatever form your observance may take, I hope you find meaning in it.

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Lamentations Rabbah: demanding God's mercy

In my last midrash class at the Conservative Yeshiva, in preparation for Tisha b'Av, we studied a midrash from Eicha Rabbah which blew me away. Here's a very simplistic retelling, which I offer in the spirit of Tisha b'Av, the day when we remember the Temple's fall and mourn the brokenness of the world.

It's a gorgeous midrash, featuring quite a cast of characters who argue with God about the injustice of God's actions at this point in time. Most of the arguments try to prevail on God's sense of justice, but the one that finally sways God is an argument arising out of compassion. It's the female voice in the story that ultimately calls God to righteousness. May we walk in her footsteps, that the world may be healed in our day.

Find previous years' 9 Av posts here.

When the Temple was destroyed, Abraham came to God, weeping and wailing and rending his clothes. Even the ministering angels joined him in mourning. How, Abraham asked God, could You allow this to happen to my people?

Israel has transgressed my laws, God replied.

Says who? Abraham asked.

The Torah will testify against them, God said, and the Torah came forth. But Abraham convinced her not to testify, reminding her that when God brought her into the world, only the Israelites accepted her. [That's a reference to another midrash, in which God offers the Torah to every nation in the world but only the Israelites say "yes."]

Then God called the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet -- considered the building-blocks not only of Torah but of creation itself -- to testify. And Abraham convinced them too not to testify, reminding each of its place in the Torah and in our hearts. To the aleph he said: you're the first letter of the first commandment God spoke to us! To the bet he said: you're the first letter of the Torah! To the gimel he said: you're the first letter of the commandment to wear tzitzit, which only we uphold! And each letter was reminded, and chose not to testify against the house of Israel.

Abraham argued further with God: I was willing to sacrifice my beloved son for You. Won't You remember that, and have mercy?

Isaac added: I was willing to be sacrificed. Won't You remember that, and have mercy?

Jacob added, I spent my life tending to my children, the house of Israel, in service of Your plan. Won't You remember that, and have mercy?

Moses added, I was a faithful shepherd to the house of Israel for forty years. In the desert I ran before them like a horse, and You didn't even let me enter the land with them, and now You're allowing them to be exiled and killed? Won't You remember, and have mercy?

Moses and the prophet Jeremiah [author of Lamentations, which we read on Tisha b'Av] went to see the destruction with their own eyes. It was hard for them to walk because the roads were so filled with the bodies of the dead. And they saw people being killed left and right, death and suffering everywhere, fathers forced to kill sons in the presence of their mothers, and they returned weeping.

Moses cursed the sun, saying: Sun, why didn't you go dark when this happened? But the sun said, I tried, but I couldn't. Moses bemoaned the Temple's fall. He told the Chaldeans not to be cruel, and yet they were cruel.

And then Rachel spoke.

God, she said: You remember that Jacob loved me exceedingly, but my father chose to give him Leah in my place. Jacob and I had worked out a system of signals, so he would know whether or not it was really me in his bed. But then I had pity on my sister and I taught her the signals so he wouldn't realize it was her. I even lay beneath their bed, and when he spoke to her, she was silent and I responded in her stead.

If I -- a creature of flesh and blood, made of dust and ashes -- could overcome my jealousy in order to be kind to my sister...why are You, the sovereign of all existence, jealous of the false gods with whom the Israelites dally, false gods who aren't even real?! How can You let Your jealousy cause your children to be slain and exiled?

And the mercy of God was stirred by Rachel's argument. And God said: for your sake, Rachel, I will restore the house of Israel to their place. Have hope for the future. The exile -- not just physical, but existential and spiritual -- will come to an end.

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To see what hurts

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.

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Exploring Eicha

Tonight, when Tisha b'Av begins, we'll read Eicha, the book of Lamentations -- what Shaye Cohen has called "the eternal lament for all Jewish catastrophes, past, present, and future."

The authorship of Eicha isn't definitively known. We know that in 586 B.C.E when the first Temple fell, only ten percent of the Israelite community (the elite) was exiled. We know that they took the implements of the Temple with them, but did not build a new Temple in Babylon. They began instead to develop services and prayers which could exist independent of Temple sacrifice -- to turn a national identity into a religion, to shift focus from a place which could be destroyed to a story which we carry in our heads and hearts.

(After the Babylonian exile ended, historians tell us, again only ten percent of the community picked up and moved; 90 percent remained in Babylon. Those who returned to Jerusalem were restorationists, invested in rebuilding what had gone before. What they had lost.)

The tradition tells us that Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) was the author of Eicha. We know he wrote other kinnot (songs of lamentation), including one about the death of King Josiah. We know that he stayed in the land when the Temple fell, and Eicha seems to be spoken in the voice of someone who stayed behind. Scholarship today suggests that Eicha is actually five separate poems stitched together, and that each chapter was written by a different poet.

For those of us who will be reading Eicha tonight and tomorrow, I offer the following set of questions. (Reb Laura brought these to our theodicy class, and the process of working through them was really valuable for me.) As you read each chapter of the poem, consider: how would you characterize the speaker(s)? What aspect of the catastrophe does the speaker emphasize? Who does the speaker blame? What stance does the speaker take towards God? And what are your reactions to the speaker's views -- how does each section of the poem make you feel?

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