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What is our vision?

07/20/2020 03:05:32 PM


Rabbi Boris Dolin


This upcoming Shabbat marks an important time in the Jewish calendar, the beginning of a profound and sometimes challenging season of reflection on our personal and communal journeys.  We complete this week with Shabbat Chazon, the “Shabbat of Vision,” so named because of the Haftarah reading where the prophet Isaiah has a vision of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.  Then as we leave Shabbat on Saturday evening, we enter Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning when we remember the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem, and many other tragedies throughout our history.  This time is not meant to be easy, but it is a time that we thankfully do not have to experience alone. 

The destruction of the Temples may be distant history, but the beginning of World War I, and of course the deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto 73 years ago are probably much closer to our hearts.  Tisha B’Av is not only a commemoration of these tragedies, but also a call to respond.  As we sit and mourn the destruction, we also reflect on what we can do as individuals and as a community to bring healing into the world.  In a world where there is still so much pain and suffering, we need to know how the lessons of the past can inform how we reach out to fix all of the brokenness that we encounter around us.

The commemoration of Tisha B’Av always coincides with with the reading of Devarim, the first parsha of the book of Deuteronomy.  This final book is the retelling by Moses of the journey of the Jewish people, and a summary of many of the key laws and commandments given by God.  It is in the first chapters of this book that Moses describes God telling the Jewish people that they will be put on a journey and will be as “numerous as the stars of heaven.”  Then, Moses recalls how he was overwhelmed by the growth of the people and the challenges of leading and teaching them.  He says “eichah esah levadi tarchachem, u’masachem, v’rivchem".  HOW can I bear the burden, responsibility, and conflict that you present?!”

Surprisingly, many rabbinic commentators see this statement as not primarily one of fear or exacerbation, but one rooted in joy.  Moses is confronted with a growing and strong community of people to whom he must teach Torah, and is privileged to listen to, counsel and even argue with.  For Moses, this is a sign that he is now leading a true Jewish community; they are no longer simply wanderers in the desert, they are a family, a tribe, with needs that he can no longer handle alone.  When he expresses “eicha”, how?, he is expressing a joy at what his community has become.

This statement of Moses contrasts with the sadness of Jeremiah, who is said to have written the book of Eicha, Lamentations, which we read on Tisha B’Av.  As he looks at the destruction of Jerusalem, he exclaims: “How deserted lies this city, which was once so full of people.”  His world has been turned to ruin, and his “eicha" is one of utter sadness and fear.  He sees a city which once was the center of the lives of the Jewish people go up in smoke, and his people sitting amid the loss of their spiritual and physical home.  In an instant all is gone.

What connects these two situations is that they mark moments of extremes.  Moses expresses shock and a muted joy at the reality of what his community has become as they prepare for the revelation at Mt. Sinai, and Jeremiah expresses the pain and sadness of destruction of his community.  Our lives too are filled with moments of these extremes, and more often, the more normal daily ups and downs of life.  This time in the Jewish calendar is a reminder to always hold on to the knowledge that our lives can turn in an instant, and that no matter where we find ourselves, there is always opportunity for healing.

The Talmud tells us that “When [the month of] Av begins, we lessen our joy” (Talmud Ta’anit 26b), and, as I discussed last week, in the three weeks preceding the day are considered a time of mourning where it is a traditional to refrain from joyous acts, such as listening to music, shaving or getting a haircut, getting married or even wearing clean clothes.  There is a belief that we need to prepare ourselves to mourn, and by doing this as a community, we remember that, unlike the death of a loved one, the tragedies we mourn on Tisha B’av were communal; they involved all of us, and we need the entire community to recover and grow from the experience.

We must remember that while Tisha B’Av is a time to express our sadness, it is also the beginning of a season of hope, and a season of Teshuva, turning.  Seven weeks from now we will reach Rosh Hashana, the New Year, and we will have the opportunity to start anew and turn back towards the true selves that we were meant to be.  The sadness of Tisha B’Av marks this moment of turning, when we begin to look inward to the places where we have experienced pain and caused pain, and to our exile from God and from each other.  We need to look at the past and never forget the tragedies of our history, but when we leave this place, we can know that we enter a time of hope. 

Rabbi Alan Lew writes about this time as an opportunity in his book, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared:

Tisha b'Av has a hot tip for us: Take the suffering. Take the loss. Turn toward it. Embrace it.  Let the walls come down.  And Tisha b'Av has a few questions for us as well. Where are we?  What transition point are we standing at?  What is causing sharp feeling in us, disturbing us, knocking us a little off balance?  Where is our suffering?  What is making us feel bad?  What is making us feel at all?  How long will we keep the walls up?  How long will we furiously defend against what we know deep down to be the truth of our lives?  

The same tractate of Talmud that tells us to “lesson our joy” during the month of Av, reminds us too that: “All who mourn over Jerusalem — will merit to see it in its joy” (Ta’anit 30b).  Even in the midst of the deepest sadness, we can hold on to the hope that change and growth are possible. 

This is the season of turning, and as we make our way together into this holy time, we can know that amidst the joys and the sufferings of life there is always opportunity.  May we all take the lessons of the past and be present enough to make them part of who we are as we continue on our journeys with hope for a world of peace, and a life of blessings. 

Thu, January 28 2021 15 Shevat 5781