Tales from the Fast

Image: The word pictured is Eicha,the name of the Book of Lamentations. Artwork by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

Perhaps you fasted. Perhaps you chose not to fast.

But if you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that the annual observance of Tisha B’Av ran from sundown Saturday to sundown Sunday, August 13-14, 2016. (We couldn’t fast the day before, because it was Shabbat.)

How was the day for you? What did you do or not do? I’m writing this before the fast and uploading it automatically, so I cannot yet tell you how it went for me but I can tell you my plan. I will leave a comment after sunset at my home to let you know how it went for me.

My plan: I cannot fast from food this year, due to some health problems. Therefore I will eat and drink what is needed for health. I will fast from social media.

I will listen to the Scroll of Lamentations via a recording, because I can’t go to shul (again, a health issue.)

I will study the scroll tonight.

And now the light is fading, and social media is part of my fast, so I must go.

Tzom kal! That means, I wish you an easy fast. I also wish you insight and reflection – I hope that you will share some of those in the comments!

A 21st Century Tisha B’Av

Image: A homeless woman huddles on a street corner with her belongings. Photo by fantareis, via pixabay.com.

Judah has gone into exile
In misery and harsh servitude.
When she settled among the nations,
She found no rest.
All her pursuers overtook her
In the narrow places. – Lamentations 1:3

In late summer of 586 BCE, we became a nation of refugees. This verse from the Scroll of Lamentations makes that perfectly clear, and it carries within it a connection to other verses in Torah.

“In the narrow places” is most translators’ rendering of “beyn hamitzarim” (בֵּ֥ין הַמְּצָרִֽים.)* That is a literal translation, but there is another possibility with slightly different voweling. “Mitzrayim” is the Hebrew name for Egypt.

So let’s try that:

All her pursuers overtook her in Egypt.

What was Egypt? Egypt was slavery. It was a prison. It was exile.

In other words, the narrator of the scroll is saying, “I get it. We messed up. And now we are going back to the beginning, to remember where we came from.”

What is it that we must remember, here and now in the 21st century? Where is this verse pointing us? I suggest we remember another verse that references Mitzrayim:

כְּאֶזְרָ֣ח מִכֶּם֩ יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם הַגֵּ֣ר ׀ הַגָּ֣ר אִתְּכֶ֗ם וְאָהַבְתָּ֥ לוֹ֙ כָּמ֔וֹךָ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Eternal am your God. – Leviticus 19:34

In the 21st century, we worry about strangers.

The world is awash in refugees as never before. There are Syrian refugees, fleeing the destruction of their cities as our ancestors fled Jerusalem. There are other refugees, fleeing vengeful gangs in Mexico, fleeing murderous homophobia in Uganda.

You shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Under the freeways, in the alleys of our cities, in our parks, the homeless huddle in makeshift camps. Some live in their cars, hanging on to the last vestiges of dignity. Parents hold their children close, and wonder how to feed them.

Young people look at the rising rents and wonder how long they can avoid the furtive camps. How will they ever afford to live? How will they ever have families? They stagger out of college burdened with debt, and they will spend their entire adult lives struggling to pay it. They move to new and unfamiliar cities, less expensive, far from family. That is a different kind of Egypt.

The writer of Lamentations calls to us to remember Egypt. We have been here before, he says.

We are back because we have forgotten the lesson: what it is like to be a wanderer on the earth.

This year the message is urgent: remember, we were strangers in the land of Mitzrayim. This year, on Tisha B’Av, we must remember what it was like to be a refugee, and then we must get over our fears.

It is time to reach out in recognition and mercy.

 

*Thank you to Akiba, who caught an error in my reading and let me know via the comments. Now corrected.

 

A Wish for Tisha B’Av

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

Tisha B’Av 2776 (2016) begins at sundown on Saturday, August 13.

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 flattened 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 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.

 

What is Tzom Tammuz?

Image: “The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70” by David Roberts. Public Domain, via Wikimedia.

If you have a Jewish calendar – or if you use the excellent online calendar at hebcal.com – you may have noticed something called “Tzom Tammuz.”  That translates to “Fast of Tammuz” which isn’t terribly enlightening, so I thought you might like to have a bit more info.

Next month we will observe the somber day known as Tisha B’Av, [“Ninth of Av”] when we remember the destruction of the Second Temple along with other disasters in Jewish history. Tzom Tammuz is part of the preparation for that day. It is a dawn-to-dusk fast to recall the day the Romans breached the city wall of Jerusalem before the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. It falls exactly three weeks before Tisha B’Av, and that three week period is a time of special mourning and attention. (Tammuz and Av are months in the Jewish year, both of which fall in the late summer.)

A “minor fast” like Tzom Tammuz is one that is kept only from sunrise to sunset. It applies only to eating and drinking, unlike the major fasts of Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur, on which we refrain not only from eating and drinking, but also from washing and anointing our bodies, wearing leather, and having sex. Major fasts last 25 hours, from sunset one day until three stars appear in the sky on the next.

The destruction of the Temple was one of the watershed moments in Jewish history, the end of one age and the beginning of another. Biblical Judaism effectively ended then, because the sacrificial cult and everything that went with it was no longer possible. Rabbinic Judaism – the dominant form of Judaism in the world today – had not yet been born. That would happen in the following months, as Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai moved his students to the academy at Yavneh.

While there are some who look forward to rebuilding the Temple someday, Reform Jews believe that the time for it is past. God moved us into a new period of history, one in which our sacrifices would be made of prayers and song, rather than of animal gore.

I personally do not fast on Tzom Tammuz, but I keep it as a quiet day of reflection and study. The Three Weeks from the fast until Tisha B’Av are a time to reflect on Sinat Chinam, baseless hatred, a topic that is sadly pertinent today.

In 2016 Tzom Tammuz begins at dawn on Sunday, July 24.

 

 

What is Sinat Chinam?

Sinat chinam (see-NAHT hee-NAHM) is  usually translated “baseless hatred.” It has also been translated as “useless hatred.” We practice sinat chinom when we hate another person or group of persons without having a good reason.

The sages teach us that the Second Temple was destroyed on account of sinat chinam. Jews quarreled fiercely and allowed those quarrels to escalate to mistreatment of one another. They forgot to look for the image of God in one another.

Hatred can be subtle. We hate when we can no longer see the other person as having the spark of the Divine within them, as human as ourselves. We tend to say, “I don’t hate anyone” because we know it is an ugly thing, but the proof of hate is not in our perceived emotions but in our behavior. Do we speak ill of a group of people we do not actually know? Do we deny others basic courtesy or rights? Do we ignore them, failing to give them the courtesy of our attention? Do we fail to speak up when others mistreat them?

Racism is a form of sinat chinam. Antisemitism is another. Political and religious disagreement can escalate into sinat chinam if we allow it.

Let us search our hearts for sinat chinam, and cleanse ourselves of it with acts of love and compassion for those from whom we differ. Then perhaps we can begin to build a better world, healed and whole.

(Image: “Hatred” by Ben Slow, photographed by MsSaraKelly, used under a Creative Commons license.)

What’s a Megillah?

A megillah (meh-gee-LAH or meh-GILL-ah) is a scroll. Usually, the term refers to one of five specific scrolls (megillot) read on specific days of the Jewish calendar:

Song of Songs (Shir ha Shirim)- read on the Shabbat during Passover.

Ruth – read on Shavuot

Lamentations (Eicha) – read on Tisha B’Av

Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) – read on the Shabbat during Sukkot

Esther – read on Purim

The megillot are not merely read, they are chanted to a particular tune or trope for the day of observance. This is not the same tune used for Shabbat Torah readings – it’s quite distinctive. I’ve linked each of the titles above to recordings, so that you can get a little taste of the trope.

Listening to a recording is a poor substitute for the experience of hearing a megillah chanted in person. Each reading takes place in the context of a community, and in the case of Lamentations and Esther the congregation also has a role to play. You’ll get a sense of that, too, from the recordings above.

Have you ever heard a megillah chanted live? What was that experience like for you?

Keeping Anniversaries, Happy and Sad

When I logged on today, WordPress (the people and software that host my blogging) informed me that it’s been seven years since I opened my WordPress account. That’s a small anniversary, especially when I keep in mind that it was another year before I figured out how to use the software!

Yesterday was a bigger anniversary: it was one of our wedding anniversaries. My generation of LGBT folks have complicated anniversaries as couples. Our “big” anniversary is the anniversary of our chuppah, but we also have a civil anniversary, and yesterday was it. The chuppah was a big party at our synagogue, and a chuppah, and two rabbis, and all the trimmings, back in 2007. The civil wedding was smaller: we met our sons at the Alameda County Courthouse and got hitched in the eyes of the State of California. Our ceremony was so simple, the justice of the peace kindly snapped our photo (see above.)

There are sad anniversaries too: every family has them. I remember the anniversaries of the death of my close relatives (yahrzeit) and days that bad things happened. Every year on October 17 I remember the Loma Prieta earthquake with a shiver: our house was badly damaged and for a while I thought something terrible had happened to Linda. Two days later we remember the Oakland Hills Firestorm, which scared us witless and destroyed the homes of friends. These events are part of our story as a family; they shaped the people we are today.

This coming weekend the Jewish mishpacha [family] will keep a sad anniversary. We’ll remember the destructions of the great Temple in Jerusalem, first in 586 BCE and then again in 70 CE.  Just as my family remembers the quake with a shudder, Jews worldwide remember these casualties of war. We are who we are today because we lost the Temple, not once but twice. It is not merely a loss: each time it set in motion changes that would shape the Jewish People going forward. We made choices, we set policies, and nothing was ever quite the same.

How are you going to keep Tisha B’Av this week? A traditional listen to Eicha, fasting, or something nontraditional? I hope you’ll share your plans in the comments.