By Rabbi Jill Cozen-Harel
Tisha B’Av begins this Saturday night.
I think that I started fasting on Tisha B’Av during the summer that I went to Kutz Camp – between my junior and senior years of high school. I don’t remember, but I doubt that I’d even heard of the holiday before that summer. I also don’t remember if the day itself fell while I was at Kutz or slightly afterwards; I had left the session a bit early to join some peers from San Diego on a Black-Jewish dialogue trip that began in the south and continued up the east coast, which was transformational in a host of other ways.
However, I do remember being pulled by the idea of collective sadness and loss. I remember trying to put myself in the shoes of those people living during 586 BCE or 70 CE and I’d imagine feelings of displacement, hopelessness intermingled with a glimmer of home, fear, and anger. Mostly, though, I imagine feeling sad. I can’t imagine what the Temple might have meant to me if I were living in those times and I can’t imagine wanting to recreate a Temple of that sort, but I can imagine loss. I know what sorrow feels like. I know that I am lucky to be living as a Jewish person – and a rabbi – in a time and a place without that same sense of abandonment, loss, and lamentation. I have no idea what such a communal experience of sorrow might have felt like, but that is what Tisha B’Av is for me. That’s why I fast. I do it to connect to my people’s history in a visceral way that I might not otherwise be able to do – in solidarity with those ancestors who, in utter shock and grief, went to the waters of Babylon and wept.
Our calendar around this time of year is powerful for me, and as I have been doing pastoral counseling work in a hospital, I find it all the more meaningful. We inch up to Tisha B’Av with the three weeks leaving up to it, beginning with the 17th of Tammuz, when we are traditionally taught that the walls of Jerusalem were breached before the destruction of the Temple. We are also taught that this is the day on which Moses broke the first set of tablets, as he descended Mt. Sinai and saw the Israelites with the Golden Calf. I am less concerned with the historicity of all this or with the centrality of the Temple than I am with the built-in tenuousness of these weeks. The Shabbat leading up to Tisha B’Av is known as Shabbat Hazon; the haftarah reading is Isaiah 1:1-127, in which we hear first about the people’s transgressions and then about the notion that there is hope for reconciliation if they stop doing even and focus on good. Had Tisha B’Av appeared completely out of nowhere each year without any warning, it might be all the harder to emotionally or collectively connect to this sense of suffering, lamenting, and loss. But in these three weeks, even if I think about it for just a few minutes on one or two days, it’s out there. In chaplaincy terms, we refer to these three weeks as a period of anticipatory grief.
There’s something cathartic about ritual and I find that to be true here too. When we transpose some of our mourning rituals onto our collective mourning, it becomes more real. It’s not about any one thing – not the fasting, not the somber melody with which we chant eicha (Lamentations), not the custom of sitting on low stools. It’s the experience. I am not encouraging anyone to take on any of these, but perhaps to simply be aware of the day and its sense of loss and longing for wholeness.
I have stood at the Kotel countless times, visited the Davidson Center on each Israel trip that I’ve staffed to experience multimedia simulations of the Temple, and stared at the Second Temple Model in Jerusalem. I know that it was magnificent. I know that I would have stood in awe at the space i I had been there before 70 CE. I know that my relationship to God and to Jewish community would have probably been remarkably different had I lived in that period. But here I am in 2012. I wrestle but I believe that I have an obligation to be in relationship with the Jewish world from the time when the Temple stood. Even though Judaism has been transformed so much since then, we are still standing on the shoulders of that time.
And after Tisha B’Av, our calendar continues in this period of mourning. The next Shabbat is Shabbat Nachamu, which offers some comfort in the midst of the emotional wreckage that Tisha B’Av brings. We read Isaiah 40: 1-26, beginning with nachamu, nachamu ami- be comforted, be comforted, my people…this is the first of seven weekly haftarah readings that deal with consolation starting the week after Tisha B’Av through Rosh HaShanah.
May we all feel sadness and acknowledge the losses in our personal lives and our collective story. And may God then comfort us and carry us forward.