the moment of turning
It is really good to be back. And it seems I came back just in time for the Gravitron ride that is the High Holiday season.
Last weekend we celebrated Rosh Hodesh Av, the new moon which comes with a tender epithet, known by the rabbis as Menachem Av, may this month bring your comfort. Who does not need a bit of solace these days? Rosh Chodesh is usually a time of joy and hope for renewal. It is in fact one of my favorite holidays. But the rabbis tell us, "Mishenichnas av mema'atin besimchah / When the month of Av arrives, we diminish our joy." This stands in strong contrast to Rosh Hodesh Adar, which calls in the season of Purim, when we are told to "marbin b'simcha / to up our joy."
Rosh Hodesh Av marks the beginning of the Nine Days, considered a period of heightened communal mourning leading up to the 9th of Av, known in Hebrew as Tisha B'Av. Considered by the rabbis to be the saddest day of the year. Think of it like Yom Kippur meets shiva. Its customs include fasting from food and water, not wearing leather footwear, not washing ourselves (washing only until the knuckle when mandated by halakhah), not applying ointments or creams, not having sex, not sitting on a normal-height chair, only studying really sad Torah, like Lamentations (seriously!), not sending gifts, or even greeting one another (you may respond to greetings), not engaging in outings, trips, or similar pleasurable activities (not a beach day!), and not wearing fine, festive clothing (typically not an issue at Kol Tzedek).
To be honest, I have never really been a fan of Tisha B'av. If I am really honest about it, it is not for some theological problem with centering the Temple in Jerusalem. That would make too much sense. It is a much more mundane aversion. I simply just love summer too much. I love swimming and ice cream and laying in a hammock in the park, fresh peaches and picking berries. In the midst of all that fun, it really feels like a spiritual buzzkill to concentrate on every bad thing that ever has, is, or will happen. I mean, can't we put Tisha B'av in January? Maybe trade it for Tu Bishevat. I can actually plant a tree in August.
But perhaps that is precisely the point.
Because in truth, who could sustain an even deeper dive into despair in the depths of winter. Perhaps the moment when the earth is in full bloom is precisely the time also to hold that the world is utterly broken, families are shattered, whole species have been lost, violence and cruelty are routine. This is precisely what Rabbi Alan Lew describes as "the great crumbling."
Somehow only this year did I realize that maybe only once the hot (and oh so humid!) summer fun has opened our pores and nourished our hearts, only then can we bear the heartbreak that is also ever present; only then can we actually let ourselves fall apart.
Tisha B'Av comes exactly seven weeks before Rosh Hashanah. It begins the process that culminates on Yom Kippur, some might even say on Simchat Torah. Tisha B'Av is the moment of turning, the moment when we turn away from denial and courageously face exile and alienation as they manifest themselves in our own lives and in our world (Lew, 41-42).
In many ways Tisha B'Av is the answer to another question I have been asked, emailed, and texted repeatedly this summer. To paraphrase, "How is one supposed to find joy, take a vacation, relax at the beach, go out dancing in the face of so much violence and cruelty?"
Which is to say, the rabbis understood that catastrophic loss has, is, and will be part of the human experience. For them, the destruction of the Temple was truly the worst-case scenario. They understood the human need to mourn and grieve, and they also understood the need to contain the grief. And so they appointed a time in which we would open to the wound of existence with discrete practices and finite time constraints. Such that we could also return.
We learn in the very beginning of Genesis, in the beginning the world was tohu va'vohu, crass and chaotic. So too now. Tisha B'Av suggests perhaps it always is. And we are once again called to journey into the chaos and construct something beautiful.
If you are able to come to services tonight, I will be sharing more about why in fact Shabbat and Tisha B'Av are equally necessary and ultimately incompatible. As a result, even though tonight begins the ninth of Av on the Hebrew calendar, we observe the fast of Tisha B'Av Saturday night and Sunday.
Wherever you are this weekend, I wish you a shabbat shalom and a gentle turning.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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