Dear holy friends,
On the rollercoaster ride of the Jewish calendar, we have been slowly creeping up to the top of a hill, and we’re about to take a plunge which will carry us into new spiritual territory.
In some ways, the Days of Awe season begins on July 28 at sundown when we observe Tisha b’Av with an evening service (8pm) featuring a reading in English of the book of Lamentations alongside poetry both old and new on the day’s somber themes. This is the spiritual nadir of our year.
On 9 Av we remember the destruction of both Temples. The first Temple was destroyed by the Babylonion king Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE, and the second was destroyed by the Roman general Vespasian in 70 CE. Both, according to tradition, were destroyed on this same calendar date. Also on this date we remember expulsions from England and Spain, pogroms, the Crusades — historical traumas throughout the ages. Traditionally, Tisha b’Av is observed with fasting; sitting on the floor or on low stools, as mourners do; and with sorrow for the two fallen Temples and the brokenness of our imperfect world.
I didn’t grow up observing Tisha b’Av, but it has become one of the most meaningful observances of my summer.
The service is brief. It’s hard to call it “short and sweet” since it is an opportunity to reflect on our communal losses through history, but it is certainly short and meaningful. And I’ve come to believe that there is something valuable about taking one day to allow ourselves to really experience sorrow and grief. Having gone down into those depths, we are in the right position to begin the ascent to the joy of the Days of Awe.
Rabbi Alan Lew writes poignantly about the two months between Tisha b’Av and the end of Sukkot:
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.
Whether or not you have ever experienced Tisha b’Av — whether or not you can easily relate to the notion of mourning for the fall of the Temple nearly two thousand years ago — I hope you will join us at 8pm on Saturday, July 28 to observe Tisha b’Av. We will hear some of Eicha (Lamentations) sung to its mournful melody; we will also sing the penultimate line of the book, with its message of hope and redemption. You can listen to the melody we will use, if you like — it was the song for the month of Av last year.
After Tisha b’Av we enter the “Seven Weeks of Consolation,” seven Shabbatot during which the assigned prophetic readings are intended to cheer and console us. Some people have the custom of doing a kind of reverse Omer count during these seven weeks: meditating on the same combinations of divine and human qualities which were our focus during the Omer journey leading up to Shavuot, as lenses to help us examine our souls and our hopes as we prepare for Rosh Hashanah. (My friend and colleague Shifrah Tobacman has written a book of poems intended for daily use at both of those seasons — Omer/Teshuvah, available on Amazon.)
That seven-week journey leads us directly to Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of creation. I’ll say more about those weeks and their unique spiritual qualities once we’ve gone down into the depths of Tisha b’Av, and brought forth whatever blessings we may find there.
Here’s one final quote from Rabbi Alan Lew on Tisha b’Av:
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…
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.
A rabbinic teaching holds that the messiah will be born on Tisha b’Av: the figure who represents perfect healing and wholeness entering the world on the day when we are most aware of brokenness and sorrow. As that holy day unfolds for us, may we connect with our deepest hopes for brokenness mended, for a world transformed.
I hope to see you on Saturday might at 8 at CBI.