An emergent young Jewish poet Meg Adler published a poem this week entitled “Tisha B’Av”. In it she writes:
When the house burns down
What will be found in the new skyline the walls used to cover up?
What remains will be there,
In the rubble,
And what in the smell
Of smoke that hitched a ride on your coat. You know,
The rabbis say ‘if you see something on fire in your town
You can’t pray it isn’t yours. When your house burns down, the only prayer
Is what now?
I will be the first to admit that I have spent most of my adult Jewish life trying to find a way to look beyond Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem (586 BCE and 70 CE).
I would all but ignore it. I would reason my way around it--- how antiquated!
How counterproductive--- to sit and mourn for a temple
when we have rebuilt a vibrant and diverse global Jewish diaspora!
A day of collective mourning--- how could that possibly serve our shared vision of vibrant living Judaism?
As Rabbi Richard Hirsch teaches, Tisha B’Av has been throughout the centuries a day of serious sorrow and reflective repentance. It’s negative gravitational pull attracted other historical disasters of Jewish history--- which by association became linked to Tisha B’Av.
Truly, until this year--- I could not see my way to an observance of Tisha B’Av that felt purposeful, meaningful, or necessary.
This year, we encounter this sacred day of commemoration, and I want to suggest that we are the ones who have changed. It is clear to me now, that Tisha B’Av can be a spiritual gift for traumatized people.
To paraphrase the poet Meg Adler, our collective human house did in fact burn down,
and so we must ask: “what now?”
Right now, I believe all of humanity is suffering from trauma.
It has been a year of heightened anxiety and fear for our own health and the well-being of loved ones; a year of isolation and of loss. And I fear that we stand to make a critical mistake in behaving as though this is all over, and behind us now.
In his book The“ Body Keeps Score:Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma”, Bessel A. van der Kolk describes four fundamental truths about how the connection between our brains and bodies following trauma:
(1) our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring well-being;
(2) language gives us the power to change ourselves and others by communicating our experiences, helping us to define what we know, and finding a common sense of meaning;
(3) we have the ability to regulate our own physiology, including some of the so-called involuntary functions of the body and brain, through such basic activities as breathing, moving, and touching; and
(4) we can change social conditions to create environments in which children and adults can feel safe and where they can thrive.
Van der Kolk continues: “When we ignore these quintessential dimensions of humanity, we deprive people of ways to heal from trauma and restore their autonomy.”
In many ways, these fundamental truths are elevated and amplified by a communal observance like Tisha B’Av: a sacred commemoration which invites us to come together, to read from the sacred words of Eicha (Lamentations), to sit low to the ground and feel connected to this earth.
I want to highlight the first two of those fundamental truths:
-Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring well being
-language gives us the power to change ourselves and others by communicating our experiences, helping us to define what we know, and finding a common sense of meaning.
We have begun this process of what my friend and teacher Dr. Betsy Stone calls “post-traumatic growth”--- of leveraging our capacity to help one another heal by coming back together. But I think we have a long way to go in the work of communicating our experiences, and finding a common sense of meaning of what we have been through.
In part, that may be because it is simply too soon.
We’re not there yet.
But, I do think we have to slow down.
We cannot outrun the grief and trauma of this past year--- it will eventually catch up with us.
We must come together as individuals and as part of a covenantal community to tell our stories--- to create space for one another’s pain. We must allow the questions to linger in the air like an ever present humidity--
I want to share with you the wisdom I learned from my friend Rabbi Jen Gubitz this week, who shared her reflections on Tisha B’Av:
What do we do when things fall apart? And how do we recover? Will we ever recover?
The Book of Lamentations, classically read on the observance of Tisha B’av, asks these same questions. “Alas! How? Eicha…” the author weeps, lamenting the bitterness and desolation in the wake of destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The loss of the Temple in Jerusalem was a destruction of the “world as we knew it” not once, but two times.
But as history and hindsight remind, these periods of destruction led to tremendous innovation. It began first with grieving, longing, and wailing; and in time (well, centuries) this tragedy led to a process of conversation and storytelling.
Whether exiled by the waters of Babylon or remaining in the Land of Israel, academies of scholarship began to write down their stories, conversations, questions and ideas… starting with their grief as cried out in Lamentations. And eventually, over centuries, the literary innovation of the Talmud, the documentation of oral Judaism, emerged. Even though our central place of gathering was now gone, our ideas, our stories, our thoughts, our questions – remained.
So what do we do when things fall apart? And how do we recover? Will we ever recover? I don’t know. I hope we do, but I have no idea how long it will take. But I think it starts with crying.
We need to cry. And then we need to cry some more, calling out ancient words of grief from Lamentations: “Eicha!” Alas! Or the words from Ecclesiastes, “Hevel Hevalim: All is futile!” As we cry, we will tell stories of remembrance – to reencounter the traumatic experience and to lift up the memories of lives lost. We will sing songs, or find poetry, or art, or movement, or silence – to express our heart’s inner longings, our grief, but also joy.
Perhaps in time we will have a day devoted solely to remembering the pandemic and each and every individual who died in it.
Just as we return each year to days of sorrow such as Tisha B’av, we will always carry our grief with us. But in time it will transform.
Tonight as we enter into Shabbat, we step into a heady time on the Jewish calendar. This Shabbat, known as Shabbat Hazon is called a Shabbat of Vision. Immediately proceeding Tisha B’Av, this Shabbat orients us from the depths of trauma, toward new beginnings.
On this Shabbat we encounter the words of the prophet Isaiah, whose voice will echo throughout the next seven weeks as we count our way toward Rosh Hashanah. Isaiah, that prophetic provocateur not only preached the coming destruction, but also restoration and renewal. “Though your sins be scarlet, they shall whiten as snow…Zion will be redeemed with justice, and they who are restored with righteousness” (Isaiah 1:18, 27).
We know that that there is indeed a time for everything:
A time to weep, and a time to laugh
A time to mourn and a time to dance.
My hope and prayer is that we will allow ourselves time:
unfettered, unrushed--- unlimited time,
to make our way through the days, weeks and months ahead.
I pray that we will allow ourselves to cry when the tears come,
and laugh with full throats when we find those moments of joy.
May we find open hearted traveling companions for the long road ahead.