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Are you there? How often has each of us asked that question of God? Of a lover? Of a parent, a child or a friend? The Jewish national day of mourning, Tisha B’Av, which is observed for ours commencing Saturday night, asks and answers those questions. At least it asks them and provides us with tools for crafting the answers we need.
The ninth day of the eleventh month in the Jewish calendar mourns a long list of tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, according to the Rabbis of the second century who laid the foundations for Judaism as we now know it. Their list includes God’s decree that the ancient Israelites wander the desert for forty years after being liberated from Egypt, the destruction of both the first and second Temples in Jerusalem, the fall of Beitar during the Bar Kochba rebellion in 135 C.E. and the plowing over of Jerusalem by Hadrian’s legions in that same year.
This list, and the various events which subsequent generations have added to it, is about the experiences of loss and dislocation that enter each of our lives at one time or another. It is about losing touch with our sense of ultimate meaning (what many call God). It is about loosing our sense of purpose and direction – of not being able to find our way home. It is about feeling powerless and alone in a world that is getting bigger and more complicated by the moment. It is about the sheer terror of not know where to turn, or even if there is anywhere to turn, when those feelings arise.
The first response of Tisha B’Av is to affirm the appropriateness of asking such questions. Rather than simply telling us that it’s all okay, God is certainly there, and we have nothing about which to worry (the equivalent of someone telling us, “relax”), this day tells us that we have every right to sit down (both literally and figuratively) and cry over that which hurts. We can question the presence of whomever we love and need most; crying out to them over their absence and asking them to see the pain we are in. Forget that stiff upper lip stuff.
So, we spend a full day without food, drink, bathing, sex, and even without shoes because in antiquity they marked the ability to move about in the world (and based on what Nike spends on advertising, they still do). It’s as if we are dead, at least physically. We strip away all that physicality, but of course we are still physically here. So as much as all those things are signs of mourning, they are also proof that we are able to get past that which we do not have, and figure out how to make it through life with that which we do.
And slowly, over the next 25 hours, we begin to take stock not only of what is missing in our lives, but also what and who are present. We start by asking ourselves in what way we contributed to the breakdown in relationship – not only asserting how others have failed us, but how we ourselves have participated in that process. That’s not about blaming the victim. It’s about taking responsibility for our share, not always equal, in any relationship. And it’s about discovering our own strength to reach out, and about the power of making space for the other to re-enter the relationship as well.
By mid-day we find ourselves daring to hope that things could be different — that while the damage has been done and the scars may be there forever, the future could be brighter. And as we begin to assert that it will be, we begin to participate in making it so. No, I don’t believe that all reality is in our minds. But I do know that we participate in creating the reality we experience. Saying that things will be better does not automatically make them so, but it sure does help move things in that direction. And as the day comes to a close, we share a meal, even a glass of wine, and discover that life and joy are still possible.
The Talmud teaches that the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred between people. It’s an odd expression because when any of us hate, we always feel justified in that hatred. So how does it help to tell people that unjustified hatred is a bad thing? We all say that’s right, that baseless hatred is terrible, but we all think that it’s somebody else’s problem!
Perhaps this teaching invites us to question the wisdom of any of our hatreds. Perhaps, this teaching suggests that from the perspective of time, they may all be judged “baseless”, or as the literal Hebrew suggests more astutely, too freely arrived at.
I wonder if at the end of the day, both Tisha B’Av and in the larger sense, we dared to love as freely as we hate, re-connect with the assuredness we bring to each act of disconnection, and assert the possibility of relationship as baselessly as we have felt it stripped away, we might not find much more of what we seek and many more of those we feel we have lost. I think we all know the answer.