Tisha b'Av roundup, and a story

Tisha b'Av is the one day of the year when most Torah study isn't permitted -- at least not in the traditional Jewish understanding. We can study Eicha or Eicha Rabbah, or Jeremiah or Job, but we're not supposed to delve into parts of Torah which might bring us joy, since joy is dissonant alongside the awareness of suffering that this day represents.

I often see blogs in terms of the lived Torah of human experience, the holy texts of our lives as they unfold. So is reading one's blog aggregator antithetical to Tisha b'Av? I'm in no position to decide that for anyone -- but should you be online today and browsing the blogosphere, and wishing for reading that explores the themes of Tisha b'Av, here are some links to blog posts I'm finding valuable today:

Elf at Apikorsus Online has a comprehensive roundup of Tisha b'Av-related posts from the last few years. She links to folks across the religious spectrum: here are posts from rabbis and laypeople who practice Judaisms ranging from Orthodox to Reform, exploring the day through a wide variety of lenses. It's especially useful, and interesting to me, that she breaks the roundup into sections: first "general" (a miscellany of excellent posts), "the contemporary problem" (how commemorating 9 Av is different in the modern world than it used to be), "liturgy" (how and why the traditional liturgy is fraught for many modern Jews), and "personal reflections."

At Radical Torah, Aryeh Cohen offers a view of Lebanon through the lens of Tisha b'Av, exploring the midrashic notion that God looks to us in order to learn how to mourn, and asking difficult questions about the ethics of what's happening in Lebanon these days.

And at Soferet, Avielah offers a transcript of a teaching by Rabbi Itzchak Marmorstein entitled The transformative call of Tisha be-Av 5766. I was particularly struck by how R' Marmorstein links a teaching about the words רעה (ra'ah, wicked) and טוב (tov, good) in the Biblical story of the spies to the Baal Shem Tov's teachings about the need to love one's shadows. (If that's a little dense for you, Avielah's recent post Crush is more personal and perhaps more accessible.)

Speaking of personal and accessible, a story. Last night toward the end of the study session which followed our service, a congregant asked an unanswerable question about how we can respond to suffering. In response, I said something like this:

It's always my temptation, at times like these, to find a way to look on the bright side. I want to find a way to make things better, to turn from despair to hope, to argue that everything's going to be okay and that we can make the world a better place. But I don't think that's the right answer for tonight. On erev Tisha b'Av, we can't go there yet. Our obligation tonight is to witness the brokenness of the world. Maybe by late tomorrow we can begin moving toward a place of hope, but for now all we can do is sit with the awareness of what's broken.

As today wears on, may we find ourselves capable of sitting with the sorrow of Tisha b'Av without yielding to the temptation to put a band-aid over the suffering. Today we are all hospital chaplains, ministering to the world with presence and the willingness to face what hurts even when it hurts more than we think we can bear. And by tonight, may we find a way to move through this, and to rededicate ourselves to the work that awaits.


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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.

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Beyond genocide

The four prints are large, roughly two feet by two feet, and exquisitely-detailed. The first, "Afghanistan," features Islamic arches and calligraphic detail; the second, " Armenia," shows lush riverbanks and distant Mount Ararat through a kind of round windowpane. The third ("Bangladesh") features lotus blossoms, tigers, masks; the fourth ("Cambodia") evokes its story with faces, dancing figures, a mandala of color. They are the first four in a series of twenty-five proposed pieces exploring genocide, using the text of the kaddish yatom (the mourner's kaddish, Jewish prayer for the dead) as a starting-point. The series is by Amy Fagin, and it's called Beyond Genocide: illuminations for our era.

And indeed, each includes lines from the kaddish, written in classic Hebrew calligraphy. (Fagin has spent decades crafting custom ketubot, and her mastery of Hebrew is clear.) But the Armenian print also features swirling lines in Armenian; the print focusing on Bangladesh (and the violence that mars Indian/Pakistani history) offers script which looks to me like Hindi; the Cambodia print offers text in what I assume is Khmer. Fagin learned the intricacies of three new alphabets in order to make these pieces which simultaneously honor the dead and call us to engage with the living. She writes:

Each illumination is a visual story which represents a culture or civilization which has been threatened or extinguished by the violence of genocide....These penetrating illuminations recognize the greatest achievements of humankind and our most violent crimes. They help the viewer to see a personal and individual reflection of our common legacy of genocide. They inspire us to look deeper into the lessons of our past so that we can free ourselves from perpetrating this massive violence upon one another in the present.

As the globe draws closer to true understanding of our inter-being, we recognize that each individual desires to live in peace, without fear of domination, neglect, or annihilation. Each one of us can live with dignity and honor by cultivating genuine appreciation for each other, respect and awe for the astounding beauty and complexity of the world we live in.

Limited-edition prints of Fagin's work are on display at Congregation Beth Israel for the next four weeks; she will speak about them tonight, after services (service at 7pm; talk around 8:15). Their installation was timed to coincide with Judaism's communal day of mourning, Tisha b'Av, which begins tomorrow night at sundown as soon as Shabbat ends (and which I blogged about earlier this week.)

The rabbis teach that Tisha b'Av can be seen as a counterpart to Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, we stand before God as individuals, cementing our own process of teshuvah (re/turning or repentance) in order to repair the personal distance we may feel between ourselves and our Source. But before we can do that as individuals, we need to do it as a community, and Tisha b'Av offers the opportunity to stand before God as a group and collectively mourn the loss of connection-with-God which the fall of the Temple represents.

For me, our disconnect with God is manifest in the many ways that we harm each other. And the more violence we create, the more entrenched we become in our separateness from our Source -- and the harder it becomes to remember that things could be, should be, any different. There is no purer or more powerful sign of that disconnect than the kinds of genocide Fagin chronicles and memorializes in her artwork.

If you are near western Massachusetts, or will come here in the coming month, stop in and spend a while gazing at these exquisite and powerful pieces of art...and regardless of where you are geographically, I hope you will join me in taking Tisha b'Av as an opportunity to mourn not only the past suffering of the Jewish people, but also the suffering of everyone wounded by the inhuman violence of genocide, through history and now. May we bring an end to genocide, soon and in our days.


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Mourning and redemption

The saddest day in the Jewish year is approaching: Tisha b'Av begins Saturday night at sundown and lasts until nightfall on Sunday. The day commemorates the destruction of the First Temple in 587 B.C.E., and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., and a host of other tragedies besides.

For many, the mourning process begins with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz, three weeks prior, which commemorates the breaching of Jerusalem's city walls as the precursor to the Temple's destruction. The customs of mourning intensify as 9 Av draws nearer. (During the Nine Days leading up to the holiday, many Jews refrain from any activity which would give cause to say the shehecheyanu.) And then on the day itself, it is traditional to eschew everything which brings pleasure -- food, wine, sex, studying Torah (except for depressing bits like Job and Lamentations) -- as we mourn the destruction of the Temple and our condition of exile from God.

Some communities place more emphasis on the first of those; others, on the second. It's a difference that matters tremendously to me.

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Realities television

I'm a big fan of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. My friends and I watch it every Tuesday night. We love the way the Fab Five tailor their suggestions to each individual straight guy, and we enjoy the genuine affection that grows, each episode, between the straight guy and the Fab Five (who we call the "adulthood fairies"). It's heartwarming, plus it's snarky and fun: a perfect antidote to the news, and to most reality TV shows. Most reality TV strikes me as either annoying or exploitative; I favor shows where good things happen to nice people through the hard work of caring craftsmen, where houses are spiffed up or gardens are redesigned or hapless guys get new leases on life.

But this story in the Christian Science Monitor reminds me that reality television can be even more than this. It can genuinely make a difference in people's lives:

"Labor and Materials" is Iraq's...first reality TV show. In 15-minute episodes, broken windows are made whole again. Blasted walls slowly rise again. Fancy furniture and luxurious carpets appear without warning in the living rooms of poor families. Over six weeks, houses blasted by US bombs regenerate in a home-improvement show for a war-torn country.

"The main point isn't to rebuild the house, but to show the change in the psychology of the family during the rebuilding," says Ali Hanoon, the show's director. "The rebuilding has a psychological effect on the families -- their memories, their lives, are in these walls." (Read the whole story, which moved me to tears.)

Today is Tisha b'Av, when Jews around the world mourn the destruction of the Temple and the brokenness of the world. Surely this Iraqi television show is a rebuilding in the physical world of assiyah which manifests, engendering joy, in the world of atzilut. Our world is broken everywhere: may blessings rain down on those, like the creators of "Labor and Materials," working to mend it.


Wrestling with 9 Av

Tisha B'Av, which began tonight at sundown, challenges me. I have a tendency to want to universalize the day's particular commemoration of suffering; I'm more comfortable mourning the broken world in general, our sorrowful distance from God, than I am mourning the destruction of the Temples all those centuries ago. (The tradition also tells us that several other pernicious acts were committed against the Jewish people on 9 Av, though the dual destructions of the Temple are usually considered the worst of these.)

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