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.