Thoughts on Tisha b'Av (9th of Av)

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A special piece on Tisha b'Av for those travelling their own 
paths alongside me.

Standard holiday background:  The second Temple and by 
extrapolation the first Temple and the first two tablets of the 
Ten Commandments were destroyed on this date.  Also on this date various other catastrophes in Jewish history occurred, such as the expulsion from Spain.

Traditional Observance: Community mourning starting at nightfall, culminating in a daylight fast day the next day, no tallit or tefillin at Shacharit (morning prayers) and mourning continuing, the mood lightening at Mincha (afternoon prayers) with the return of tallit and tefillin to this time when it is not usually worn and the fast ending sometime after that or at sunset.

As my readers know, I spent this year's Tisha b'Av at Elat Chayyim, ending in the 450 mile drive home back to Canton, OH.  For me it was particularly powerful because the observance was at Elat Chayyim, which is intense anyway, and because Tisha b'Av was the day after Shabbat -- talk about contrasts.

And since I have experienced deep personal mourning, it took me back to memories of what Shabbat had done for and to me at those times.  One goes from the deep intensity of living with one's grief for the weekdays and then Shabbat comes with its gracious relief from the depths as we celebrate creation, our release from Mitzrayim, the narrow places of our lives and community joy.  Then Shabbat ends -- talk about wanting to delay that havdalah candle -- and the grief crashes back over us.

It is perhaps significant that I remember vividly the Shabbatot from my shiva (7-day mourning) times after each of my parents' deaths.  It is also probably significant that tears are welling in my eyes as my being returns to those Soul-rending times, even now.

Shabbat at Elat Chayyim came with a rush of relief to the wonderful davvening of Debbie Friedman, Rabbi Stan Levy and Rabbi Shawn Zevit.  Like most renewal davvening, the davvening took longer than expected and dinner was wonderful, too -- especially the singing and dancing.  We looked around and it was already 11PM, quiet time at Elat Chayyim!  Some of us were not ready to be quiet yet, however.  And so, with a marvelous giving of permission, the Shabbat celebration moved downstairs to the Mo'adon (lounge), which kept the noise to the rest of the community to an acceptable level.  This is amazing, actually, since we had several drums and 2-3 guitars at all times.

Downstairs we danced (boy -- was I thankful for the pain pills that deadened the pain in my recently injured knee) and sang our hearts out.  During one of my many rest periods, I looked at the faces and the people -- those who had been saying Kaddish (mourner's prayers) that week were there -- the closer they were to their losses, the harder they were singing and dancing -- it was striking.  My own father's Yahrzeit, may he rest in peace, was during this time that I was at Elat Chayyim and so I realized that I was truly a part of this crowd.  Oy, it felt good to just give oneself over to the music and the community and just be in Shabbat.  (I have been told that the coffee cup on my head was an "Elat Chayyim moment" by some.)  As I left the oneg, the rejoicing, I realized that what we, mourners, were doing, was dancing and singing until we were exhausted and then we would, hopefully, surrender to real sleep with grief quieted, at least for a few hours.

Shabbat day was quiet and peaceful, for the most part.  Davvening and the last class gathering and meals took up much of the day, as did the last-minute stuff around getting ready for Tisha b'Av -- Oy.  Some of us walked slowly to the bridge near the entrance where there are fish and waterbugs and crawdads teeming in the little brook during one of the short breaks in the day.

And then, suddenly, it was time for Havdalah and Tisha b'Av was there.  In all of its absolutely intense emotions.  Boom.  There.  Shomeyr, shomeyr, the lamenting plea to the One to please guard the remnant of Yisra'el, now devastated.

Then Tisha b'Av.  And oddly enough, the actual observance of the day is not what this writing is about.

It is about the meaning and significance of Tisha b'Av.  The Mourning for the Temple.

Now, for me, Tisha b'Av has always been about people -- the people who lost loved ones -- children, partners, parents and friends.  I cry with and for them, for I am among them.  For me, that is the real loss, the souls that we once felt within and alongside our own.

But Tisha b'Av is about a building, the Temple.  At Elat Chayyim we talked about that time in  our history as the time that the patient is on the life-support machine, but no longer alive.  We talked about the destruction as a paradigm shift -- there have been many in history and it is becoming more apparent every day that we are at the cusp of another one in these days.  Whether it is "God is doing something new" or "Spirituality is rising" or just "WOW", we are again at a time of transition.

The theme of building is a recurring one in my life lately.  Rabbis Daniel Seigel and Mordechai Gafni both spoke to that theme when they were in Cleveland for our Renewal Shabbat.  Reb Daniel, in particular, talked about how large, beautiful, empty buildings were the legacy of the Judaism that grew in America out of the holocaust.  I had never looked at Judaism that way before, but it was a clear observation.

That observation was brought home to me at a synagogue fair this past June, which was a community event aimed at attracting new members to the various congregations.  One congregation had brought a fairly large scale model of their new sanctuary for all to see.  It was an impressive edifice -- but it was the large empty building Reb Daniel talked about.  I looked on their table for something that talked about what the community was doing for people, what their education programs might be, nothing.  There was a blurb about membership fees and the building fund (surprise) and how large and old the congregation was.  And there was this model -- it covered half of their display.

And the two congregations where I am intimately involved are also in "building" moments.  Both congregations are experiencing splits in their memberships over these buildings.  There are members that are attached to the buildings and members who don't understand that attachment.  In the one congregation, I am simply a listener to both sides.  In the other congregation I am the student rabbi.  In both congregations, there are money problems that appear to be forcing a future choice between building and people.  This situation is threatening to tear these communities apart, as the two 'sides' prepare to entrench.  In good financial times, there is enough money to go around and everybody can get something.

But what happens when there is not enough money?  What happens when the Temple burns down?  What happens when our people are devastated and carried off?

Tisha b'Av teaches, perhaps, that we need to pay special attention to these transition times.  These are times of grieving, of mourning.  These are times of emotional lashing out and seemingly irrational behavior.  Judaism teaches that people do unexpected things when they are grieving -- and that such behavior is to be both accepted and expected.  The mourner is exempt from certain social graces because they may, just may, be in an emotional and hurting place.

Yisra'el had to lose the Temple in order to make the transition into a revitalized, growing people.  Today that is obvious from history.  Is it true for today's congregations?  And can they avoid destruction from the tensions surrounding these issues?  I certainly don't know.  I think it will come down to whether or not they can face the transitions before them.  The "old" ways will not work for either of them, because that is how they came to their current situations in the first place.  The question is two fold -- first, will the communities come together and work together to achieve a viable solution and second, if a "loss" is incurred will it be acknowledged and validated?

Let's look at the buildings and recognize what they mean to people.  Since I am more of a people-person, this recognition has not been easy for me.  But it is a concept I have been wrestling with a lot lately -- things do not happen by accident.  I think this is why Tisha b'Av has been particularly powerful and deep for me this year.

Buildings, whether they are Temples or shuls or even our own homes, represent things to us.  Like the flag, they are symbols that help remind us and others around us of who we are.

And in that capacity we become attached to them.  They are more permanent than people because people die and leave us.  Buildings appear to be there -- they are "concrete", after all, permanent.  They become something we can count on, even if they are not "alive".  They become "alive" through the good times and the bad times that we spend in them -- just like a departed person, the buildings are "alive" because of the memories they evoke.

And because these buildings are alive in our memories and because they are the symbols of our success and "who we are", when they are threatened, we are threatened.  This threat is at our core because of what these buildings represent and mean to us.

These building come to mean our very lives to us.  If they remain, we are successful -- if they are gone, we are failures -- both to ourselves and in our eyes, to the world.  In some ways, our familiar bracha (blessing) says this:  Mah tovu ohalecha Ya'akov, mishk'notecha Yisra'el (How goodly are your tents, Ya'akov, your mishkan, (your dwelling place), Yisra'el).

This image hearkens back to an outsider, Bilaam, looking at our encampment and being impressed by what he saw.  The parsha with this quote in it typically comes right before the 17th of Tammuz - the fast that commemorates the breaching of the city wall that leads up to Tisha b'Av, the actual destruction and burning of the Temple itself.

Yet we survived the destruction of the Temple -- the rabbis taught that the mishkan, the dwelling place is actually inside us -- (to quote Torah, "v'shokhanti b'tocham" -- I will dwell within you) and that community prayer could bring us together.

And that is what Tisha b'Av is about -- it is about coming together as community -- to mourn dreams and buildings and lives that have not survived -- and so we hurt.  And these Soul-rends must be acknowledged and lived by the mourners and the communities if they are to heal.  If we fail to acknowledge and feel this pain, then anger sets in and all of the negatives that anger brings with it.  Shiva is about living and feeling and acknowledging that grief, that pain.  That grief and that pain becomes tangible, even oppressive -- and that is why we have Shabbat -- to give us some breathing room.  Thank you, Source of All, for that breath, that Soul-time, for that rest.

If a community goes through one of these life-changing times (holding on to their buildings or not), they can still survive as communities -- but only if they come together to mourn the loss that the building, the Temple, meant to members of that community and therefore to that community.  Sometimes we need destruction, the fire in the woods, to clean out the undergrowth and allow for new growth, stronger and more vibrant than what came before.

Sometimes we are strong enough, committed enough, to clear out that undergrowth without the fire.  It is almost as if we have a chance to come together as community and be vibrant or we will be destroyed and then given another chance to come together as community.  As in the days of the original Temple -- times change and things and people change.  In fact, the only thing that doesn't change is that change keeps happening.

Sometimes we resist change -- sometimes we become entrenched in the way things were -- long after that existence is viable.  When that happens, desperation and  destruction will follow, because change happens -- whether we want it or not.  Going forward means coming together as community -- the only question is whether we do it in time to save the Temple -- or if the Temple is no longer viable, then to heal our members and move forward as a community.

And so we celebrate Tisha b'Av each year so that we can mourn together the Temples of our lives -- regardless of their form.  We come together to sit on the floor and to cry and feel and to hurt -- because if we don't, we won't survive.  And we don't acknowledge our pain and our grief, then we will become angry and that will distance us from the One and from each other.

I don't think it is an accident that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur -- which deal with righting ourselves with each other and then with the One -- come so close after this powerful holiday.  We must grieve, cry, heal and then, without anger at others or ourselves, come together as community, acknowledge our own shortfalls, our "sins", move forward to embrace life, each other and the One.

Heathy Healing and Shabbat Shalom,


(c) 2001 Shafir Lobb.  All rights reserved.
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