A Wish for Tisha B’Av

Image: The open ark at Congregation Emanu El, Houston, TX.

Tisha B’Av 5777 (2017) begins at sundown on Monday, July 31.

I’ve been thinking about what to say about Tisha B’Av this year. Then I read a d’var Torah on Lamentations that stopped me in my tracks, and I can’t think of anything else.

The Times of Israel published an article by Rabbi Joshua Rabin, Institutions Are Not Holy, and I recommend you read it, if not now, then definitely before Saturday evening. It’s an excellent example of topnotch Torah teaching. He showed me something that I’d never noticed before, although I’ve read the Book of Lamentations many times. He takes the item he points out some very interesting places – as I said, read it! – but when I read it, my mind went somewhere else entirely. That’s what really great Torah learning can do.

The insight that derailed me was this: Lamentations begins with a great wail of “HOW?” Indeed that is the Hebrew name of the book: Eicha (AY-khah – AY in this case rhymes with “bay.”) The scenes at the beginning are the scenes of Jerusalem and her Temple in ruins, a scene of unremitting pain and misery.

Rabbi Rabin points out that we expect the book to end with a hopeful vision of the city and the Temple restored. That’s usually the pattern with Hebrew laments: we start in a bad place, and finish with a vision of the future that holds hope. Since the problem at the beginning of the book seems to be a destroyed city and a Temple in ruins, one would think that the hopeful vision would be of the city and Temple rebuilding. But that’s not how it ends:

Take us back, Eternal One, to Yourself, And let us come back; Renew our days as of old

For truly, You have rejected us, Bitterly raged against us. Take us back, Eternal One, to Yourself, And let us come back; Renew our days as of old! – Lamentations 5:21-22

The hopeful vision of Lamentations, the antidote to all the misery, is NOT a shiny new Temple. Rather, it is the restoration of the relationship between us and God.

That’s the insight that sent me reeling. Actually it sent me to the book to see if it really said that, I was so startled. And sure enough, that’s what it says.

Now here’s where I leave Rabbi Rabin’s excellent derash and head off into my own thoughts. Those final words of Lamentations may sound familiar to you. That’s because they are enshrined in the Torah service:

הֲשִׁיבֵ֨נוּ יְהוָ֤ה ׀ אֵלֶ֙יךָ֙ וְֽנָשׁ֔וּבָה חַדֵּ֥שׁ יָמֵ֖ינוּ כְּקֶֽדֶם׃

Take us back, Eternal One, to Yourself, And let us come back; Renew our days as of old!

We sing these words as we are closing the ark of the Torah, when the Torah service is ending. There they are an expression of our grief at putting the Torah Scroll away, at the distance between ourselves and the words in the scroll. We are looking forward to future readings, and future study, and perhaps also to study in the world-to-come. We are looking forward to the closeness to the Holy One that we feel when we are studying words of Torah.

The reason people seek out religious experience is that there is a deep loneliness in human experience. We long for a connection with something or someone more lasting than ourselves, because we are mortal beings. Sooner or later in every life there is a moment when we wonder, “What on earth is the point of all this?” and if we can find an answer that satisfies us, that becomes our answer to the meaning of life.

Religion isn’t about being right. It isn’t about beating up on other people, or feeling superior to them. It is an attempt to find an answer to that longing; it is a vehicle for the ongoing search for meaning and truth.

When the Babylonians destroyed the Temple and carried away most of the people into servitude, the remaining survivors wandered around the broken city asking themselves, “HOW?”

  • How do we make sense of this?
  • What was the point?
  • What now, that our lives are literally in ruins and all is lost?

These are the same questions we ask when things seem to have fallen apart in our own lives. It is no accident that people tend to join temple after a major life event: a new baby or a death in the family.

Babies are disruptive. It is not uncommon for a new parent to whisper in the dark, “What will I do, now that my life is in ruins?”

Death is terrifying. One moment a person is there, the next they are gone. How do we make sense of this? And worse, what was the point of this life, any life?

These are the questions that invade our lives like the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem. This is the point of Tisha B’Av: to spend a day with our hearts pressed against the problems of disaster and mortality, of love and loss. And the answer lies there at the end of the scroll of Lamentations: the answer is in our longing for relationship: relationship with God, relationship with community, relationship with other human beings.

I wish you an insightful Tisha B’Av.


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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

14 thoughts on “A Wish for Tisha B’Av”

  1. By the virtue of the artful combinations of both Gregorian and Hebrew calendar (and this year having been an embolismic one) Tisha b’Av will mark the end of shana (the year of mourning my mother), a month before her yahrzeit, but nearly to the day a year after she died according to the secular dates. I am looking forward to studying the messages of consolation in the weeks ahead.

    Mourning has been put aside in our busy modern lives, and I had always disagreed with that tendency, intellectually at first but the more so now that I got to experience the depths of losses after losses and the toll it takes on a person.

    I wish my own synagogue (a Reform movement synagogue) had provided more structure to the mourning of so many of its members in the past few years, and I am relentless is saying so.

    Once again, thank you and thanks to the beauty of social media that give me a space to feel I keep with my roots and with the wisdom of my faith to bring solace and useful insights to work on bereavement in a Jewish way.

    1. I’m glad that social media have been helpful to you in the mourning process, Otir. Sometime, after your year of mourning is done, I’d like to hear more about that. Perhaps we could have a conversation?

      I agree that mourning is less emphasized these days in Jewish communities, and I think it is an enormous mistake. Both the individual and the community suffer for that loss.

      I wish you comfort and shalom over the coming weeks as the haftarot speak to your wounds of mourning.

      1. I will love to have a conversation with you, Rabbi Ruth! We’ll have to set it up with the 3 hours time difference, but I am sure this is not going to be a problem for techie geeks like us 🙂

    1. Oh, Denise, I am feeling that so strongly! I decided to leave the specifics of the current situation out of it because different readers have different needs. However I am feeling the need for Tisha B’Av this year, very deeply.

      Thank you for reading and for speaking up.

  2. While out in what I call the back packing country a feeling of peace flowed around the through me. I pictured you Rabbi Adar sitting in the meadow teaching a group of us. Towering behind us the majestic mountains, temples, granted to us. For those seeking love, peace and understanding the signs were posted along the path to enlightenment. The wisest of the wise created it ensuring all mobile devices fail to find a signal.

  3. When I read the article referenced in the Times of Israel, I immediately thought of how Rabbi Ruth is fulfilling the mission of taking Judaism to the community by teaching outside of a temple, inviting people to her home and meeting anywhere to embrace Judaism.

  4. thank you for pointing us to this article and adding your insights; I feel like what is being said spoke directly to my thoughts today about hungering for spiritual guidance. we have excellent teaching at our synagogue and via online there is so much to be learned, it almost overwhelms, but what I carry away is that there is not just one way to be Jewish and live a Jewish life, and for that I am so grateful to know and to have confirmed.

  5. As I am a snail, I often find myself doing things for the first time that seem to be very basic, and that’s just fine with me. However, it can occasionally give me jolt of joy, or( as in this case) a reaction best described as “yikes……eeeeeeeek……add profanity of choice”( I didn’t want to put “swearie-words” on your page)

    First time reading Eikha……and I got to the point where it said
    “Hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children: they were their food in the destruction of the daughter of my people” …….and .i couldn’t read any further.

    Literal? Metaphor? Help me out…..I can’t get my head round this at all….


    1. Your guess is as good as mine. I hope it is metaphor. However we know from archaeological evidence that the seige of Jerusalem was long and terrible and people were trying to eat inedible things. (Ancient latrines can tell us a lot even after thousands of years.) I cannot believe it is literal, but I know of several times in Jewish history when people killed their children rather than allow them to be sold into slavery.

  6. thank you for pointing us back to this blog and the article referenced, good grounding as it is so easy to become overwhelmed by present day events. humanity is only too good at going thru turmoil, but we have guidance and assurance and peace thru Torah and conversation with HaShem.

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