The reflective steps toward the Jewish New Year traditionally begin with the communal observance of Tisha b'Av, a day of mourning and fasting.
Tisha B'Av begins tonight (7/20/18) and is observed after Shabbat.
The observance of Tisha b’Av, our communal day of mourning, begins this evening.
Why would we have this sort of ‘holiday’? and how does it fit with today’s parasha?
If you think about it carefully, this holiday really doesn’t fit in with the rest of our Jewish yearly celebrations. Most are upbeat, with exciting and enlightening themes, great backstories, loads of ways to decorate or re-enact, and of course, great food. Certainly, they are all well worth the wait for their return each year.
So, why do we have this observance of mourning dropped into our liturgical year? It has none of the festive children’s activities or costumes as on Chanukah or Purim, communal meals as on Pesach (Passover), spirited songs or music such as we have on Kabbalat Shabbat (Sabbath Welcoming service), or symbolic decorations or ritual items such as the lulav, etrog or sukkah.
Spirit is a light and wonderful thing. It lives in our wonderful Kabbalat Shabbat tunes, in our imagery of rushing to meet God, just as the groom runs to meet the bride, in our imagery of ascending to the heights in the Yishtabach and Kedusha prayers. We call it ruach in Hebrew, the same word as for wind or the breath of life. Ruach is the kiss of breath that God gave to Adam, and again to Moses on the Mountain.
So, why was it that God turns the Israelites back just as they were being directed to ascend to the Promised Land, and Moses, not allowed to cross at all? Hang onto that thought from today’s retelling of the story by Moses in Deuteronomy:
What is the thing you feel when you are ill or have lost a beloved person or relationship? is it fear?
What do you crave at those times? Is it light and happy music, dressing up gaily, being told to cheer up?
We have great models for how to praise, thank and celebrate. But what road map or models do we follow when life’s curveballs come our way?
Growing up, I’d often missed Tisha b’Av, being away at secular summer camp or a family vacation, as did most kids I knew. Summer was not the best time to attract family participation in synagogue life when I was growing up!
Then as an adult I started to choose to come. The whole thing was a rather self-conscious endeavour, as everyone else seemed to know what to do, and I did not. Some synagogues dressed it up with chant-like dirges, personal confessionals or grim poetry. The common denominator though, was sitting on the floor with a candle, some words, and an overall gloomy experience.
I decided to deepen my understanding by learning to chant from Eicha, the book of Lamentations. This year, I also learned first hand the value of going deep rather than high to look for the answers to inner loss, because high spirits were dancing around me, and interfering with my search.
The Talmud tells us in Berakhot 10a that we praise God for our soul, "Barchi nafshi et Adonai, v’col koravai et Shem kodsho": "My soul praises you Adonai, and all of my being praises your holy Name". The rabbis are telling us that a human artist can draw a figure of a person, but they cannot give that drawing a soul. Only God can do that. We turn to God when we forget we need our soul.
Many people refuse to believe they need one. They smother over pain by keeping a stiff upper lip, numbing with prescription and recreational chemicals, acting out their anger or rage at others. The acting out can be frighteningly overt as we see on the news regularly, or polite and politically correct and covert with the euphemism of ‘non-violent’, but actually passive aggression.
Tisha b’Av says, good news! there is a healthy way to move through great changes that come with loss.
The truth of loss is that you really can’t go back to the way things used to be; and you will only get more angry the more you expect life to continue as it was. Remember that anger, overt or covert.
The truth is, that we only grow when we let go.
As a people we had to move on when the Temple was once again destroyed in 70 CE. We had no choice, we were forced to leave our place of Ascents behind.
We read Psalm 137 this evening as part of the Tisha b’Av service, reminding us that the first thing we did by the rivers of Babylon was to sit and weep as we remembered Zion. The next thing the psalmist tells us we did was to hang up our lyres, musical instruments of the Temple, on the willow branches, in order that our captors could not force us to levity and to sing and entertain them with songs about Jerusalem.
Why was this so important? Because this was a time of looking inward for guidance, and not the time for those spiritually soaring songs.
The past many weeks have been a time of great change for me too, having been quite ill. I believed at first that resting and staying positive would cause the illness to pass and then I’d go back to my former self and routines and work. But Finally,
A wonderful mentor who I hadn’t seen for a year took me aside and said, “You look terrible! What has happened to you?” Indeed, his plainspoken words cut through all the illusions I had been struggling to maintain to keep myself and others happy and feeling in high spirits.
The next weekend I schlepped myself to a choral concert, Haydn’s ‘The Creation’. I just wanted to let my mind wander and go with the music: after all the four guardian angels were there, in the forms of two sopranos, a tenor and a bass soloist.
I want to testify to you that the man who sang the role of Raphael, the bass soloist, saved my life. In Part II of The Creation, as Haydn took us to the lower realms Raphael’s voice took the audience there with him in the most earnest embrace of power and vocal security, down to the basement of the human voice. Or perhaps lower. This note, the lowest D, poured out like a chocolate lava pudding through his willing and open jowls. We listeners also slid, safely and softly, as if a giant’s paw deliberately and lovingly delivered us to the bottom of a long snowy ride.
The sigh in the room was not so much heard as taken in breath together, much as the way a mother and her baby at breast sigh with satiety as one.
Masterfully, he paused.
Mercifully allowing us that moment of silence to take in our found and restored soul, to be able to return to, again and again.
As our tradition says, the artist can create music, but it is that God gives the musician and the listener the soul. ‘Barchi nafshi et Adonai, v’chol koravai et Shem kodsho’.
I have returned many times since Sunday. That place he brought us to, so far down, below from the high spirits of the grand hallelujahs, to the place of healing. There I was safely able to know that indeed life had changed forever and that it was lovingly going to be okay. Who but Raphael, his Hebrew name meaning God’s Healer, should bring such Refuah Shelaima, a return to wholeness?
Back to Moses and the Israelites: We read in Deuteronomy Ch.1: 20-46 that God saw them hesitate with fear and enlist spies to check out the Promised Land, rather than trusting to go forth with soul and spirit in alignment. He told them, No you won’t be going in, and although just like small children they simpered and begged to be let in, God said No. Their descendants, a generation away from the fear and bondage of Egypt, would be allowed in; and rather than Moses, whose work was to lead them away from bondage, it would be Joshua who would now lead the new generation forth into the Promised Land.
I know more of what Tisha b’Av is about now. Each year I will know more.
Each time I find myself trying to lift up when things really need to go down, I know that Raphael’s soul voice will be there to reassure me that it’s okay to trustfully surrender and let go of what binds me, and to find comfort in the recalibration and growth.
‘Barchi nafshi et Adonai, v’col koravai et Shem kodsho’.
*Re-posted from a 2015 entry on The Compassionate Oboe blog
…©Susan J Katz 2015