Category Archives: the Three Weeks

Balancing joy with sorrow: a d’var Torah for Shabbat Shachor

BlackIt’s Shabbat Shachor, the “Black Shabbat” that falls right before Tisha b’Av. Today our experience of the sweetness of Shabbat is tempered by awareness of what’s broken, from our own ancient stories of destruction and becoming refugees to what we see and hear on the news even now.

Monday night will bring Tisha b’Av, when we’ll go deep into this brokenness — a paradoxical beginning to the uplifting journey toward the Days of Awe. In Hasidic language, that’s a descent for the sake of ascent.

But how can we now celebrate Shabbat with awareness of these sorrows?

You might ask the same question of anyone whose loved one has received a fearful diagnosis, or of any mourner, or of anyone who knows the grief of ending a marriage or losing a beloved home or enduring any kind of loss.

In Jewish tradition, we suspend formal mourning on Shabbat and festivals. But someone who is grieving is likely to still feel their grief even on days that are supposed to be joyful — maybe especially then, because the disjunction between how they are “supposed” to feel and how their hearts naturally flow can be so profound.

Shabbat Shachor offers us an opportunity to sit with that tension between joy and grief. For many of us, that’s deeply uncomfortable. It’s easier to paper over the sorrow and just be happy, or to keep joy at arm’s-length and just sit with sorrow. Today our tradition asks us to resist both of those easy outs, and to sit with the dissonance of a psycho-spiritual chord that’s both major and minor.

If you’re feeling grief, today invites you to temper your sadness with Shabbat joy. If you’re feeling Shabbat joy, today invites you to temper your happiness with an awareness of life’s sorrows. This can feel like a grinding of our emotional gears. The heart wants to lurch to one extreme or the other — sorrow or joy — not to stretch wide enough to feel them both at the same time. Resist that temptation.

On Monday night we’ll be wholly in a minor key. Tisha b’Av is a day of mourning for our communal losses: the destruction of the first Temple by Babylon, which led to our becoming refugees; the destruction of the second Temple by Rome; and a long list of other losses and griefs throughout our history. That day isn’t quite here, but we can feel it just around the corner. We can see it coming.

I’ve learned as a pastoral caregiver that every loss evokes and activates every other loss. Sitting with our historical and communal losses can heighten our sadness around personal losses: the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job or a home, the loss of a relationship, the loss of health, the loss of hope. Maybe you’re feeling that way today. If not, you’ve likely felt that way before… and will feel that way again.

And yet amidst all of that loss, both present and anticipated, today we’re still called to open our hearts to the abundance and flow of Shabbat. On Shabbes we’re still invited to taste perfection. Even if our ability to rejoice is subdued by circumstance or memory, we still offer thanks today for life’s many blessings. We still open ourselves to the experience of feeling accompanied and cradled by divine Presence.

It’s not a matter of either / or — either we savor the sweetness of Shabbes, or we marinate in the bitterness of grief. It’s a more nuanced and complicated both / and. On Shabbat Shachor we affirm that our hearts are flexible enough to hold both. And what we affirm today as a community carves pathways in our hearts that will help us affirm this truth in our own ways, on our own time, throughout our lives.

Today is our communal Shabbat Shachor, the day when we sit with this balance between grief and joy as a community. But in every life there are individual Shabbatot that take place in this middle ground, partaking in sweetness and in loss. Today reminds us that even when we grieve, Shabbat can still bring  comfort — and that even at our times of greatest joy, some of us will still struggle with sorrow.

Today invites us to cultivate compassion for ourselves and for each other, knowing that everyone lives in the balance, the tension, the middle ground between sorrow and joy. This is spiritual life. This is human life. May we recognize that even at times of rejoicing, we and our loved ones may be carrying grief…and may we help each other access gratitude and joy even during life’s times of darkness.

 

Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.

Days of closeness, days when God feels far away

Crack-in-concrete-wall

The Jewish calendar is filled with moadim. Usually that word is translated as “festivals,” though it literally means “appointed times.” Each year we have moadim of closeness to God, and also moadim of distance from God. The Days of Awe and Sukkot are moadei shel keruv, appointed-times of closeness with God. The Three Weeks and Tisha b’Av are moadei shel richuk, appointed-times of distance from God.

That teaching comes from R’ Shlomo Wolbe, whose work Alei Shur I studied recently with R’ Jeff Fox as part of a week of “Rabbi (and Hazzan) Recharge” organized by The Jewish Studio. With R’ Jeff we also studied a text from R’ Shmuel Eidels (a.k.a. the Maharsha) that speaks of the Three Weeks as a period of growth toward fruition. Just as it takes 21 days for an almond tree to blossom, says the Maharsha, so we can understand the 21 days between 17 Tammuz and Tisha b’Av as a period of preparing for flowering-forth.

I don’t usually think of Tisha b’Av — that date of destruction and shattering — as a time of fruition or flowering. But the Alei Shur reminds us that it is natural (maybe even good?) for our relationships with the Holy One of Blessing to have an ebb and a flow, to have times of intimacy and times of distance. (Indeed: distance is often what awakens in our hearts our yearning to reconnect.) And from the Maharsha we learn that even destruction can have a silver lining, and can spark the blossoming of something new.

Today is the 17th of Tammuz, the beginning of the period known as The Three Weeks (also called Bein Ha-Meitzarim, “In the Narrow Places.”) Today is the anniversary of the ancient breach of Jerusalem’s city walls. In three weeks, on Tisha b’Av, we’ll re-experience the destruction of the Temples, our people’s quintessential experience of shattering and distance from our Source. (Join us for Tisha b’Av evening services at 8pm on Monday, July 31.)

In the Alei Shur’s language, these weeks are a moed of distance. They’re balanced by the three weeks from Rosh Hashanah to Shemini Atzeret, a moed of closeness and drawing-near. Three bitter weeks, and three sweet ones. We need to experience them both. The soul gets “out of whack” otherwise, if we marinate only in sorrow or if we allow ourselves only to feel joy.

What does it mean to say that this is appointed-time of distance from God? For me, it’s an opportunity to notice where and when and how I already feel that distance. Maybe my sorrows are causing me to feel distant from God: maybe I’m grieving so hard I can’t find God. Or maybe my joys are serving that function this year, if I let myself fall into the trap of spiritual bypassing — maybe I’m over-focusing on the positive so I don’t have to face what’s difficult in my life. Either way, distance from God ensues.

The Alei Shur teaches that distance from God isn’t, in and of itself, the worst thing. (Far worse is when we have fallen so out of alignment that we no longer even notice the distance.) He sees the distance as part of a natural cycle of being close and being far away — a ratzo v’shov, as it were. When I notice that I’m distant from a beloved, and let my heart feel the ache of that distance, the ache impels me to reach out and be close to my loved one again. As with a human beloved, so with the divine Beloved.

Where do you feel distant: from your beloveds, from the Beloved, from your traditions, from your Source? What are the patterns and habits that contribute to that distance? What are the excuses you make to yourself for why it’s okay to be disconnected, and what feels “at stake” when you imagine reconnecting — what are you afraid of when you imagine letting yourself reconnect?

Today we remember the first breach in Jerusalem’s ancient city walls. Where is your heart cracked-open? In what realms do you feel broken-hearted? How do you deal with the vulnerability of being fragile and breakable? What seeds might be planted in your broken places, that over these three weeks could be silently preparing themselves (preparing you) to flower into something new?

 

Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.

Shabbat morning, Tzom Tammuz, and a meditation update

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends:

17 Tammuz and the Three Weeks

This coming Shabbat is a minor fast day in Jewish tradition — the fast day of 17 Tammuz (also called Tzom Tammuz — “tzom” means “fast”) when we commemorate the breaching of Jerusalem’s city walls. For those who are interested, here are a couple of things I’ve written about 17 Tammuz over the years: 17 Tammuz: the walls begin to fall (2012), Descent for the sake of ascent: the fast of 17 Tammuz (2014.)

I know that most of us in this community do not observe the minor fasts, but I think we can still find meaning in the way our calendar unfolds. 17 Tammuz begins a period known as the Three Weeks, which will culminate on Saturday August 13 with the fast of Tisha b’Av.

Although this is the week of parashat Balak (the only parasha in Torah featuring a talking donkey!) we will not read from Balak this Shabbat morning. We’ll read instead from the portion that goes with the fast day of 17 Tammuz, and enfolded into our morning service (in lieu of Torah study afterwards) will be a conversation about the Three Weeks and how their teachings about brokenness can be meaningful in our lives today.

A meditation update

On an unrelated note: once again this Friday there will be no meditation. I will be at shul on Friday! But I won’t be there in time to meditate. Thanks for bearing with me as I continue to navigate the changes in my life and my son’s shifting summer schedule. We will meditate again on August 5 (also the day of our next Kabbalat Shabbat / potluck!); I will need to miss August 12; and after that we should have smooth sailing for the rest of the summer and into the fall.

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel

Interpretive haftarah for Shabbat Hazon

Here is the translation of the haftarah for Shabbat Hazon (“The Shabbat of Vision,” the special Shabbat immediately before Tisha b’Av) which we read and discussed at CBI today. It was translated by ALEPH rabbinic student David Aladjem.

 

Haftorah for Shabbat Hazon  

An Interpretive Translation of Isaiah 1:1-27
David Aladjem

The vision of redemption
The vision of peace
The vision of the Prophet Isaiah
Of Judah and Jerusalem reborn.

Hear me, oh earth and heavens
Hear me, my children and the Children of Israel
We all know that G’d is our Parent, Friend and Teacher
But – oh how quickly – we forget.

Rather than turning from evil to do good
We rush to do evil
Even when we could do good
Even when we could heal the world.

And what do we reap from our lust for evil?
A bruised body, heart and soul.
A desolated world
Burning up through our desire for more, ever more.

Yet we ask, why have You forsaken us?
We have brought our sacrifices
We have done Your bidding
Yet You do not answer us.

Really?
You have always thought only of yourselves
Not of others’ needs
Not of what might be right and true
But only of what is easiest to do
And that which puffs you up with pride.

Come, let us learn together
You can act justly and heal this world
Clothe the homeless, feed the hungry
Defend the powerless
That is My desire.

Turn your hands to My work
And I will give you all that you desire
Food for your bodies
Contentment for your hearts
And love for your souls.

On that day
Zion will be redeemed with justice
And all will dwell within her walls in peace.
Jerusalem will again be
My holy city

And war and destruction will never come again.

Dvar Torah for Shabbat Hazon: listening to the holy space between

Here’s the d’var Torah I offered this morning at CBI. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)


שָׁמֹ֤עַ בֵּין־אֲחֵיכֶם֙ וּשְׁפַטְתֶ֣ם צֶ֔דֶק בֵּין־אִ֥ישׁ וּבֵין־אָחִ֖יו וּבֵ֥ין גֵּרוֹ

Hear out your fellow man, and decide justly between any man and a fellow Israelite or a stranger.

This line leapt out at me this year. Literally the first phrase means “Listen between your brothers.” Listen to the different perspectives of your brothers, your kinsfolk, those who are part of your tribe. Because even your kinsfolk will have diverse opinions and perspectives. And it’s important to listen not only to “each side,” but also to the Torah of the in-between, the space between their perspectives in which is held the truth that multiple truths can coexist, that “you don’t have to be wrong for me to be right.”

Our mystics teach that each letter of Torah is holy, and even more holy is the white space of the parchment which contains the letters and the infinite possibilities between them. The lived Torah of every human experience is holy, and even more holy is the space between us, the space in which we can choose to interact with lovindkindness and compassion, even when we disagree. Maybe especially when we disagree. It’s easy to relate in an I/Thou manner which acknowledges the full dignity of every human being when we’re on the same side. That becomes a lot harder when our disagreements are impassioned and heartfelt.

Listen between your brothers, and bring justice and righteousness to bear on how you respond. Bring tzedek to interactions between your kinsfolk, and also to interactions between your kin and those who are different from you. If someone of our community is in a disagreement with an outsider, an “other,” we’re still called to treat both parties with tzedek, justice and righteousness. Imagine the ultimate “other,” the kind of person who are you naturally inclined to mistrust and to doubt. Now imagine one of “those people” disagreeing with one of “us.” Now imagine what it would mean to respond to that disagreement with justice and righteousness, instead of with anger and fear.

The space between us is holy, like the parchment surrounding the letters of Torah. Because on white space, anything can be inscribed. It’s infinite possibility. The Torah, midrash says, is written in black fire on white fire. The white fire is the blank parchment; the white fire is the endless universe of our interpretations and commentaries. The white fire is the space between us, and the space between us is holy. But how often do we fill the space between us with the stubborn insistence that one party is right and the other party is misguided? That one party knows the truth, and the other party is deluded?

As we approach Tisha b’Av, that day when we commemorate calamities from the shattering of the first tablets of the covenant, to the destruction of both Temples, to the expulsion from Spain, to the Chmielnicki massacres, to the expulsion from the Warsaw Ghetto, to every brokenness we experience in the world even now… As we approach Tisha b’Av, knowing that the fear, suffering, and devastation in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza are at an extreme… As we approach Tisha b’Av, it is our job to remember the holiness of the space between us. To treat one another with justice and righteousness, and give each other the benefit of the doubt, even when our perspectives differ.

 

Thoughts before 17 Tamuz

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

EJmR3188046On Tuesday, July 15, many Jews will observe Tzom Tamuz, “the fast of Tamuz” — one of Judaism’s minor fast days, commemorating the breach of Jerusalem’s city walls which led (three weeks later) to the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E.

I say “many Jews” because I know that the minor fasts are not universally observed, especially in liberal Jewish communities. The notion of commemorating the first chink in Jerusalem’s armor almost two thousand years ago may seem strange to us.

But I think there’s value in observing 17 Tamuz, and being conscious of the Three Weeks which link it with Tisha b’Av, even if you do not fast, and even if you aren’t certain you actually want to mourn the fall of a Temple you can barely imagine.

There is a deep wisdom in the way the Jewish calendar unfolds. Our festivals and fast days are waypoints along the journey we travel each year. 17 Tamuz marks the beginning of the descent toward Tisha b’Av. At Tisha b’Av, we mark the beginning of the ascent toward the Days of Awe.

In Hasidic tradition there’s the idea that often in order to rise, one first has to fall. Yeridah tzorech aliyah: one has to go down in order to be able to go up. Descent for the sake of ascent. This drama plays itself out in a variety of places in Torah — for instance, in the Joseph story, in which “descent for the sake of ascent” is a recurring motif. The downs are necessary precursors to the ups.

For Lurianic kabbalists, the whole of creation was a shattering which it is our unique privilege to be able to rebuild. If there had never been a rupture, then there couldn’t be a healing.

EMy+barn+This drama also plays itself out on the stage of every human life. We fall down, we get up again. I believe that there are gifts to be found when circumstances have laid us low. As the 17th-century Japanese poet Mizuta Masahide wrote, “My barn having burned down, I found I could see the moon.”

17 Tammuz, the Three Weeks which follow it, and Tisha b’Av which comes at the end of those weeks, are a time for us to delve together into descent. It’s not only “my barn” which has burned down — it’s our barn, the place which was spiritual home for all of us together. It’s not only my life which sometimes contains brokenness or sorrow — it’s all of our lives. We’re in this together.

17 Tamuz is a day to consider: when and how do your “walls,” the boundaries of your emotional and spiritual integrity, feel breached? What is it like to feel that something painful has come through your defenses? What issues, subjects, or sore spots make us feel defenseless and alone?

The tradition says that 17 Tammuz is the anniversary of the day when Moshe came down the mountain, saw the people worshipping the golden calf, and in heartbroken fury shattered the first set of stone tablets containing God’s words. What are the idols our communities have fallen into holding sacred? Can we allow ourselves to grieve the ways in which our communities are not yet what we most yearn for them to be?

The point of 17 Tammuz and the Three Weeks and Tisha b’Av isn’t wallowing in anger and sorrow. It’s allowing ourselves to recognize the things that hurt, the places where we are broken, so that together we can emerge from those places humbled and energized to begin the climb toward the spiritual heights of the High Holidays. Descent for the sake of ascent. If we’re willing and able to go down together, we build bonds of community which will lift us to greater heights when it’s time to climb up.

This year the 17th of Tammuz falls during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when our Muslim cousins are fasting from dawn to nightfall every day. (This “minor fast” in our tradition is observed in the same way — morning to night, not 25 hours like Yom Kippur.) And this year, 17 Tammuz arises amidst tremendous bloodshed and suffering in the Middle East.

Eliaz Cohen, a poet who lives in the settlement of Gush Etzion, has suggested that in the midst of so much sorrow and violence in Israel and Palestine, Jews and Muslims can choose to consciously fast on this day in solidarity with one another, as a “Hunger Strike Against Violence.” You can learn more at Fasting Together, Jews and Muslims Choose Life (mostly in Hebrew) 0r War Looming: Make Fasts of 17 Tammuz and Ramadan Hunger Strikes Against Violence (English).

Whether or not you fast from food and drink on 17 Tamuz (next Tuesday), I invite you to consider spending the day fasting from negative assumptions about others and from unkind thoughts and actions.

May the minor fast day of 17 Tamuz, and the following Three Weeks of opening ourselves to grief, bring us together in our low places so that together we may begin the work of building a better world.

Wishing everyone a Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Rachel

 

Adapted from a post on Velveteen Rabbi.

Tisha b’Av Date Correction

Dear CBI members and friends,

I’m writing to correct the dates of Tisha b’Av; the announcements which went out this week contained a date error, for which I most sincerely apologize! The days of the week were correct (Monday night, Tuesday afternoon) and the Hebrew dates were correct, but the Gregorian calendar dates were off by one day.

We will indeed be meeting for our evening service at 8pm on Monday — which is July 15th, not the 14th as was in the original announcements. And we will gather for afternoon study at 3pm on Tuesday — which is July 16th, not the 15th as was in the original announcements.

All are welcome to attend one or both of these observances, regardless of whether or not you are fasting. On Monday night we will read the book of Lamentations in English, hear a little bit of it in the mournful melody unique to this day of the year, and immerse in some poetry designed to open us to the loss and grief of the day. On Tuesday afternoon we will study texts about repentance and fasting as the day takes a turn from despair toward hope.

Wishing everyone a sweet Shabbat —

Rabbi Rachel