The “Nine Days” begin tonight. It is a time that I dread all year. Here’s why:
1. I don’t eat fish, cheese or potatoes. Which means that during these “nine days of torture”, I will be eating a different shape of pasta for dinner every night.
2. I am a night person. I can’t wake up without a boiling hot shower – the kind that turns your skin lobster-red (and then afterwards, a coffee). Boiling hot showers are on the list of “don’t dos” during the Nine Days. Which basically means, my family is gearing up for having a grumpy and lethargic Ariela around for the next nine days.
3. While I don’t profess to love doing laundry, the ever-growing pile of my family’s dirty clothes is a constant scary reminder of what’s waiting for me on the afternoon of the tenth of Av. Not a pleasant thought.
And so, my house looks very much like many other Jewish households today: washing machine on its eighth load, kids getting in that last swim, early dinner featuring our Shabbat meat leftovers- all in preparation for the Nine Days, during which, none of these things are allowed.
But when I get caught up in the frenzy of these last-minute-before-Nine-Days activities, an incident that occurred nine years ago stops me in my tracks and reminds me what this time is all about.
I was twenty-three years old and single, spending the summer in Atlanta on a YU summer program with eight other men and women who had come to learn and teach Torah in the community (including one man who would later become my husband). As befitting our age, that erev Rosh Chodesh Av, we were not thinking about nine days of no laundry, but rather, the fact that we had to spend the upcoming days without meat. For college boys, this was a big deal (and admittedly, for a non-fish, cheese and potato eater, I can’t say I disagreed). And so someone had a brainstorm for a great program: an Erev Rosh Chodesh Av, all-you-can-eat BBQ, which as we shopped and prepared for extravagant amounts of meat, became known as “the basar-fest”.
The preparations took almost all day and finally, with the delicious aroma of grilled meat in the air, we sat down to our feast, ready to engorge ourselves… when Rabbi Michael Broyde, who was then the Rabbi of Young Israel of Toco Hills, walked in. He had been approving or tolerant of all programs that we had run thus far and so when he walked in, we invited him to join us and partake of our gluttonous feast. To our shock, for the first time that summer, he gave us a look of total disapproval and followed with a speech that left us awash in shame. There was nothing wrong with having a barbecue the night before the Nine Days began, he explained, but our lack of sensitivity was astounding. To engage in gluttony- as a way to “stuff ourselves with meat before the Nine Days”, was in bad taste. We were days away from hearing Eicha, the chilling words which describe starvation so awful, that women ate their own children. Jerusalem and the Beit HaMikdash in flames, a day in which we commemorate all Jewish tragedies in history… and we dared begin these auspicious days of mourning by stuffing our mouths with meat? He was clearly disappointed in us, and we were ashamed. We had never thought past following the detailed laws that involve the Nine Days, but we realized then, how right he was. We were lacking the sensitivity for what these laws were all about.
I think of his words today as I hurry to finish my laundry in time (especially after my kids got meat sauce all over their pajamas during dinner… so onto another load). I think of the Jews of Warsaw – whose first transports to Treblinka began nine days from today, on Tisha B’Av. How those Jews would have yearned to have the mere inconvenience of no laundry and meat for these nine days as their primary concern. I think of the few summers I’ve spent in Jerusalem, looking at the golden walls of the Old City as the haunting tone of Eicha was read, making the destruction feel real and relevant. I think of the beautiful words of the haftarot that we read in these weeks to prepare ourselves for Tisha B’av- words that speak of a city of justice and peace, and that make us cognizant of what we lack. I think about the fighting between the Women of the Wall and the charedim about who gets to pray at the Wall, and I feel strongly that both sides are handling it the wrong way. We are a divided people, and it is so sad that this issue highlighting our division has to occur at the site of the destruction of the Temple. I feel saddened when I think about Jewish media who are all too eager to publicly attack wonderful, upstanding and righteous Rabbis who make human errors in judgment (I am not referring to rabbis who molest or steal when I say this) in order to make a great story. We as a people are so far from where we should be- from the just and united nation that is supposed to glorify G-d’s holy city. And I should be eagerly stuffing myself with meat because for nine days (less, when you count Shabbat), I will have to go without?
I also think of another Atlanta Rabbi, Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, whose words I read every Tisha B’Av, in his essay, “Why I Like Tisha B’Av”. “Tisha B’av is not everyone’s favorite holiday”, he writes, “But it is one of mine– not because it is enjoyable, but because of what it represents… I like Tisha B’Av because I need it”. These nine days, culminating in Tisha B’Av, are a time to forego our physical comforts and cravings in favor of greater meaning. To transcend our individual selves in efforts of becoming a greater and more unified people. And we are reminded of this every time we eat macaroni for dinner and every time we see the mounting loads of laundry. They are not the inconvenience- they are a reminder of the greatest inconvenience that we as a people have- our divisiveness, and as a result, our exile.
May we use these nine days as a time to learn the lessons of the past and to ensure that next year, we have no need for a Nine Days- perhaps then, we as a united people can all enjoy a “basar-fest” of celebration together in a rebuilt Jerusalem.
(Sunday evening, July 7th- Erev Rosh Chodesh Av)