I am writing this on a long, lazy Tisha B’Av afternoon. The sky is brilliant blue and a gentle breeze is beckoning me outside to get on my bike. No, not today. I must conserve my energy. At my synagogue, we have undertaken a dramatic journey using prayer, compelling speakers and the chanting of Kinnot, the anguished, eyewitness poetry of Jewish suffering through the ages. We sit on the floor wearing wrinkled clothing and simple, non-leather shoes. We acknowledge each other with a stare, recognizing this day is not about camaraderie; it’s about alienation and exile, death and mourning, dashed hopes and bitter tears. Tisha B’Av was once a universally observed commemoration of disasters befalling the Jewish People. Nowadays, the fast is undertaken by perhaps 10% of the tribe. That in itself is reason to mourn.
The Jewish People create their own simcha (joy) and tzuris (pain). Our foes are often generated through karma of our own manufacture. The Talmud recounts the origin of archenemy Amalek, who wreaked so much suffering on our nation throughout the ages. Our patriarch Yitzchak’s eldest son was Esav, twin brother of Yaakov. Esav’s son was Eliphaz, and Eliphaz’s concubine, Timna, was a princess who wanted to convert to Judaism. She presented her case to a beit din (Jewish court) formed by the three patriarchs who all happened to be alive at the time. When they rejected her, she chose to remain with Eliphaz, stating, “Better to be a maidservant to this nation than a leader in another.” Their offspring is Amalek, an individual who was hell-bent on avenging the alleged disrespect shown to his mother and grandfather. This hatred of the Jewish People was handed down through the generations, eventually leading to the tribe of Amalek’s brazen attack on Israel when we left Egypt. Amalek surfaces again in the near genocide concocted by tribesman Haman in the Purim story.
The spiritual heir of Amalek is the force of weakness crippling our national resolve. It is the voice that chides us: it’s all random, God doesn’t really care, God is too busy to hear our prayers. The gematria of Amalek is the same as the word safek, doubt. When Moshe sends the spies to research the Land of Israel before the conquest, it is the influence of Amalek which erodes their confidence and instills panic. Thanks to this error in judgment and lack of faith in the Almighty’s redemptive ability, God decrees that the generation will wander for forty years and die in the desert. Since we cried over nothing when the spies returned, God presents the anniversary of this incident as a day for tears throughout history. The impetus for tears becomes quite real in future generations: not only were our two Temples destroyed on this infamous date, but it also corresponds with a freakish collection of calamities befalling us throughout history. In other words, we created Tisha B’av, and we’re still fasting three thousand years later.
My first Tisha B’Av memory took place at Camp Ramah, just outside Santa Barbara, California during the summer after third grade. I was a precocious seven-year-old in edah aleph (group one, the youngest class of campers), enamored of my bunkmates and a natural at the Israeli ball game of gaga. Our edah worked together to fashion a beautiful outdoor beit k’nesset (synagogue) beneath a sprawling oak tree with custom painted benches and our artwork hanging from the aron hakodesh (holy ark for the Torah). One fateful morning, we awoke to find someone had upended our precious prayer space. The aron was on its side, benches strewn about, our works of art scattered on the ground. I was shocked to the core. Who could do such a thing? Then our counselors explained the destruction in Jerusalem transpiring three millennia earlier on that very day. This re-creation of the tragic events of the past created an indelible memory and allowed our bunk to bond during the rebuilding process.
In the summer of 2014, the war with Hamas in Gaza corresponded with the Three Weeks. It did wonders for Jewish unity. Among Israelis, there was 95% agreement of the justice of our acts of self-defense, in a country that can’t agree on anything. The same unanimity of purpose swept the Diaspora. This galvanization of the Jewish spirit began when we were praying for the well-being of three kidnapped teenagers, Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-Ad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah. As the atrocity of their senseless death spiraled into war, Jews remained united in their revulsion of the unmitigated evil of Hamas and the need to be rid of the menace of their arsenal of rockets and terror tunnels. As we went from ceasefire to ceasefire, we stood together in prayer for a peaceful, lasting resolution. May we always remain in such a holy state of achdut, unity.
The Jewish People are connected more profoundly than any of us realize. In many ways we’re like the aspen, one of the largest organisms on earth, famous for decorating mountain ranges with brilliant autumnal radiance. Aspen groves are not collections of disparate entities. They are typically distinct expressions of a single subterranean root system, sometimes stretching over a hundred feet from the parent tree. Deciduous aspens occupy a precarious niche in a coniferous forest, swelling their collective sunshine-yellow glory wherever the colony can obtain enough light. Similarly, the Jewish People are an interconnected family weathering the storms of history, shining the light of peace, love and innovation into the world whenever given the chance. The fires of the destruction of Jerusalem, European pogroms or the Holocaust may rage but they cannot extinguish the spark animating the collective Jewish soul. We all feel the pain of our fellow Jew because in essence we are one entity.
Our enemy has had many names over the years: Radical Islamists, Nazis, Cossacks, Romans…it doesn’t matter. Anti-Semitism is a convoluted and an irrational force of evil, but potent nonetheless. Our little nation is perpetually under siege. We are surrounded by bloodthirsty enemies with values incomprehensible to those with a Judeo-Christian weltanschauung (worldview). Rabbi Noah Weinberg used to say, “If you don’t know what you’re willing to die for, you haven’t begun to live.” For what are we willing to lay down our lives? Our children, our country, the Jewish People? So LIVE for them!
Tisha B’Av is hard on even the hardiest individuals. As it is said, “Society is only three meals away from anarchy.” In the waning hours of the holiday, everyone is disheveled and drained. Jewish law stipulates we can’t don tallis and tefillin until the sun is about to set, having been denied the glory of these crowns earlier in the day. We lumber into a Mincha minyan where we are comforted by the words of divine forgiveness in the Torah reading, which depicts the aftermath of the sin of the Golden Calf. Then in the Haftorah, the prophet Isaiah proclaims: “For you shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace; the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” Even when all seems lost, God is with us, guiding us and giving us hope. Even on this most mournful day, we must serve God with joy. We then utter the Amidah and special insertions with an intensity only possible when ravenous and parched, poignantly aware of one’s mortality.
Tisha B’Av is the saddest day of the year for those steeped in the Joy of Judaism. Our collective primal scream echoes throughout history like rolling thunder from the original lightning bolt of destruction, the obliteration of our faith by the spies in the desert. Even at the nadir of our joy continuum, there is a kernel of hope. By the end of the fast we teeter on shaky legs, ashen faced and cotton-mouthed. Finally, at the conclusion of Ma’ariv services we drink delicious gulps of water and step outside the synagogue to celebrate the end of the three-week mourning period with Kiddush Levana (Blessing the New Moon), dancing together in the darkness.
When writing this article, I did an online search for “aspen tree poetry” and discovered a lovely poem by Monica Sharman. I was amazed to see that the biblical passage she quoted was the aforementioned verse from the fast day reading.
In the rising wind of a coming dust storm
a mini-stand of aspen planted between
the heron pond and the stucco home
made some noise; they say it’s
“quaking.” But that name makes one
think of timid fear. Listen like
a musician, with the psalter’s ear,
and hear, instead, the sound of applause:
For you shall go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees of the field
shall clap their hands.
May we continue to dance together like aspen trees shimmering in a gentle alpine breeze. May our unity be as self-evident as the aspen’s subterranean interconnectedness. May our miraculous survival mimic that of the age-old grove of this hearty species, with roots so deeply intertwined it can withstand the heat of any conflagration. May we bring life, love, peace and the awareness of the Creator to all nations.
Sam Glaser is a performer, composer, producer and author in Los Angeles. He has released 25 CDs of his music and his book The Joy of Judaism is an Amazon bestseller. He produces albums and scores for media in his Glaser Musicworks recording studio. Visit him online at www.samglaser.com. Join Sam for a weekly uplifting hour of study every Wednesday night – 7:30 pm PST. Presented with love, humor and music for learners of all ages and levels of knowledge. https://us04web.zoom.us/j/71646005392 – Meeting ID: 71646005392