It is a powerful coming together, for me, of old and new, global and local, the trials of history and the travail of dealing with the natural world. Two distinct observances, one I have known about for most of my life — and struggled with, the other I am just learning about, and have yet to fully appreciate… both occur, this year, on the same day.
This coming Monday night and Tuesday, July 31 and August 1, 2017, are, on the Jewish calendar, the Ninth of Av — Tisha B’Av, the saddest single day of the Jewish year. It was on this day, so we are told, that the first Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. It is on this day, as well, or close enough to it, that the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, in the year 70 CE. On this day, by design – knowing that it was already a day of sadness and suffering for us, the Spanish rulers in 1492 decreed that the edict of expulsion would go into effect, adding misery upon woe, sweeping away more than a thousand years of Jewish life on the Iberian Peninsula. So, too, have others behaved: callously choosing a time of remembrance and lamentation… to heap even more pain upon us.
I have long struggled with the observance of Tisha B’Av. The pain of our past, the agony of our ancestors is real. Those who suffered deserve some of our attention. We honor their lives and their loss with our annual recollection of their stories.
And yet, as powerfully illustrated by Rabbi David Hartman, of blessed memory: it is a strange and dissonant act to weep and wail for lost Jerusalem… in a city thriving and in our hands today. We remember destruction, in the midst of ongoing construction. The memory is important. But shouldn’t some aspect of our observance change… to reflect… well, reality? Should not our prayers acknowledge the world that is, as well as what we have gone through?
Security concerns are frighteningly real, peace seems far away, threats abound. And yet who would want to swap out the Jewish position today… with that of 50 years ago? Or 70 years ago, or 100, or more?
We remember. But how should we do so? Is the fasting, the wailing, the weeping still the right note to sound?
One month ago I found myself in a very new place. My family and I have moved to the United States Virgin Islands, where I now serve as the rabbi of the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas — the oldest synagogue in continuous use under the American flag (a very slightly well-spun phrase, as I will write about another time), and the second oldest synagogue in the Western hemisphere. We are one of five synagogues in the world with sand on the floor — a deliberate remembrance in and of itself, of the persecution of the Sephardic Jews, of their attempts to keep Judaism alive in secret, of using the sand to muffle the sound of their footsteps if they needed to scatter and disperse and hide.
The boxes are not yet unpacked, our lives are not yet fully organized here, and, as I told my previous congregation, I can quote the great British philosophers of Monty Python: “and now for something… completely different.”
As I was doing initial planning for my first month of work on the island, I noticed something on the calendar of local observances I had not known about before. At the beginning and the end of the season of storms here there are two island holidays. One, marking the beginning of the season, is “Hurricane Supplication Day.” The other, marking what is (usually) the end of the danger, is called “Hurricane Thanksgiving Day.”
And yes, in looking at the calendar I saw that Hurricane Supplication Day — the tradition of directing prayers towards heaven and giving voice to our hope, articulating our fear, pleading with God to send the waves and the wind, the raw, destructive power, the fierce energy of the planet off…in a path that harms no one, in a way that disperses without damage and which leaves no destruction in its wake — I saw that that local holiday occurs on the fourth Monday in July.
In other words, this year, Hurricane Supplication Day… and Erev Tisha B’Av… are on the same day.
I find this a compelling combination. We are buffeted by the winds of war, the hand of hate, the damage we choose and inflict about one another. We have suffered from the evil chosen by other human beings. And… And we are wary, and sometimes weary, from the wind and the water we otherwise love. We suffer, as well, from what insurance companies call “acts of God,” but which, I believe, are mostly not choice but chance, a manifestation of the way the natural world works.
Our community, my new congregation, will come together Monday night, then, for a night of memory and anticipation. It is a convergence of fear and faith, history and hope, suffering and supplication.
Trying to capture the nuance of Tisha B’av in a world in which Israel is reborn and an earthly Jerusalem largely rebuilt… and trying to give voice to authentic prayers to prevent hurricanes in a world in which we are not so certain that it is the conscious choice of an omnipotent Divine being to send a storm in one direction rather than another… here are two things I have written for this combined observance:
For Hurricane Supplication Day
(in conjunction with Ma’ariv Aravim)
The Psalmist proclaims with confidence and faith:
“We shall not fear, though earth itself should shake,
though the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though the waters roar and foam and the hills quake
from the force of the waves.”
Yet surely we do fear to face the raw power of the world.
We tremble in awe and our own hearts leap
as darkness comes,
and the wind and water hurl themselves
against the will and world we have built.
Shield us, O God, against the full fury of such force.
Be with us, to lead us through chaos.
It is called an “act of God.”
But it is God we call upon to be with us,
In the midst of the storm,
And, better yet, in hope that
the storms of the sea will pass us by again.
For many years, this congregation has lifted its voice,
And lent the power of our prayers to the supplications
of this season. We have united with the men and women
of good will on these islands and beyond,
in common hope and purpose.
A safe harbor is the hope of all who face the sea.
May it be so for us, now and forevermore.
Barukh Ata, Shomeya Tefilah.
Blessed are You, who hears our voice,
Who hearkens to prayer.
For Tisha B’Av
(in conjunction with Mi Kamocha)
We stand this night, we live in this era,
Between remembrance and redemption.
We have, or perhaps our parents and grandparents,
have witnessed the darkest moments of our Jewish journey and,
Indeed, one of the worst times in all of history.
With ages past, we have known loss and mourning,
Heartache and hatred.
And yet we have seen a fading ember come back to light,
The flames of the furnace transform into a beacon of hope.
Mourn, we are taught, for Jerusalem lost.
But she has been restored anew,
A living place, a city of awe,
A dream attained, a flight away.
What note should we sound, on this sad day?
We want the words we say and the world we see
To have some connection with each other.
So this night, yes, we remember the past,
pain and sorrow, destruction and loss.
We observe, but, for some of us, not quite in the way we once did.
Some may fast, and some may simply remember.
But for us, we know this night is one… of history and of hope,
Of destruction… but also of renewal.
We pray, and we say, these words of redemption…
I do believe in a connection between what we see and what we say, even as I know that the language of liturgy is often aspirational, inspirational, prescriptive and poetic. This week, in giving voice to the yearnings of our heart, I wish for all of us a remembrance of journeys past… and shelter from the storms to come.