Every year during Tisha B’Av, I observe the holiday’s communal rituals of mourning, including the twenty five hour fast, chanting the book of Lamentations, and refraining from all expressions of joy and normal life. However, Tisha B’av’s traditional religious message has never cut too deep an emotional wound into me, nor does it open for me some deep wellspring of pious grief from which I drink. I understand the poetic value of the holiday’s writings and rituals which view Jewish suffering as God’s punishment of us for our sins. Yet the horrors of Auschwitz and the insidious persistence of anti-Semitism and other human hatreds taught me long ago to stop clinging to that literalist theological narrative which turns human evil into an unwitting tool of divine justice. I understand the profound role the destroyed, ancient Jerusalem Temples play in Jewish historical consciousness. Still, I believe that the Jewish people has grown well beyond needing a new Temple, and I shudder to think of the violent global consequences of its attempted construction.
Tisha B’Av does effectively allow me to express deep sadness for the Jewish people and the world, as part of our people’s mourning together. These past two months prior to the holiday especially have felt like one long liturgical list of suffering and trauma that rivals the pain, if not the poetry, of the kinot, the great medieval Tisha B’Av elegies. Our enemies continue to inflict terror upon Israel and the Jewish people worldwide because we have the temerity to exist. Israel has been forced to inflict suffering upon innocent civilians placed in harm’s way by those same enemies, as She has pursued her just quest for self defense. A lot of physical security and moral certainty has been temporarily threatened, the strength of Iron Dome and the admirable courage and self restraint of the IDF notwithstanding. Brave young soldiers’ lives were snuffed out and their families’ lives destroyed; the flames of anti-Semitism and extremism are burning fiercely; the hopeful idea of a truly peaceful future for Israel and the Palestinians is upended, at least for now; the defanging of Hamas is in limbo; the perverse demonization of Israel is intensifying; among our people are some who insist upon clinging to the ancient pathology of sinat chinam – causeless hatred – in the form of polarized political debate or by demeaning Jews and non-Jews they fear as the Other. Tisha B’Av’s collective emotions of grief and despair, if not its self flagellating theology, have never made more sense to me. I recognize that the Jerusalem of 2014 is not the Jerusalem of 586 BCE and 70 CE or the Auschwitz of 1943. Still, this Tisha B’Av, which we observed earlier this week, I felt like history’s revolving cycle had left tread marks on our backs. This is our bleak reality right now.
However, right now is not necessarily one decade, one year, one month, one week or even one day from now. That is what the next part of the Jewish liturgical calendar, beginning this coming Shabbat, is saying to us. We will begin the annual slow climb from under the shadow of the valley of death of Tisha B’Av to the serene summit of the mountain of Yom Kippur’s love and forgiveness. We commence the seven Shabbatot of comfort and consolation marked by the redemptive promises of the prophet Isaiah. We pass through Rosh Hashanah and two more Shabbatot which emphasize forgiveness, change and healing. Then Yom Kippur, the summit, beckons us to find that last burst of energy, hope and courage to push towards the top. Our hard, anxious breathing slows, we clear away the sweat, bramble and fear, and we look out over the grand sweep of the world and of our lives. We hopefully see it all differently, in peaceful, quiet moments after our tumultuous, terrifying arrival.
Of course, the climb of life, like the ascent of a mountain, is not purely linear. The topographies of the earth and of human existence will wind and curve. Some people will ascend to the summit some of the time; some will climb half way and be happy with the view or get stuck there; some will decide they need to climb elsewhere or not at all; some will fall. This year’s ascent from Tisha B’Av to Yom Kippur feels so bizarre, almost sacrilegious to me. Talking about the tradition’s assurances of comfort and redemption in the presence of so much danger and death feels like a desecration of the memories of those who have died and their grieving families.
Yet this is precisely why the liturgy of these weeks following Tisha B’av demands our weary, anxious, despairing attention. The great medieval Siddur commentator, David Abudarham wrote that the consolatory haftarot – the prophetic readings – of the first seven weeks are actually a dialogue between God and a grieving Zion, which personifies the people and land of Israel. God says, “Be comforted.” We say, “We can’t, we’ve been abandoned.” God sees our suffering, our anguish, and our despair, but God persists in convincing us to never abandon hope. That final haftarah which we read in the synagogue just before Rosh Hashanah, declares: “Sos asis” “I will surely rejoice.”
We will surely rejoice. Like our entire religion, this time in the Jewish calendar reflects a cyclical drama that looks at life with unvarnished realism, but then refuses to assume that the entanglements of death are all there ever is or will be. I like to quote the words of Jewish communal activist, Barry Shrage, who reminds us that we Jews are a people of faith, not fate. Despite the looming prospect of an endless death in the Tisha B’Av valley right now, we Jews are commanded to push forward, upward towards life against the narrow, steep path, wearing nothing on our bleeding, calloused feet but hope. Isaiah pleads, Nachamu nachamu ami: comfort, take comfort, people. The summit is just in sight.