2016-06-30
We have just emerged from the most painful period of the Jewish year, a time of sorrow and mourning known simply as "The Nine Days." The Nine Days culminate in a day of fasting and lament known as Tisha B'Av (the ninth of the month of Av). On this day, we remember a horrific array of tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people since the birth of its covenant with God, most poignantly the destruction (Churban)of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem.

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Imagine waking up one day and seeing the most important place in your world being burned to the ground. The place where you go to "taste and see" the presence of God, the place which embodies the love and commitment shared by you and your Creator, is being shamelessly destroyed by a hateful enemy. You are ultimately powerless to stop him, and God--for reasons you are not at all sure you understand--chooses to be silent as well. Has God abandoned you, declaring the covenant you had thought eternal null and void? You are paralyzed by confusion, sorrow, and even rage. How is it possible to live when all you value, care for, and aspire to has simply disappeared?

This is both a historically specific question--the Jewish people in Palestine in the year 70 C.E. must find a way to respond to the unimaginable devastation of the Churban--and a universal human one: What do I do on the morning after?

Judaism's first response is simple: Mourn. We cannot be expected to respond to destruction with immediate outpourings of courage and covenantal faithfulness. Courage, too, will have its moment, but for now we must simply cry, lament, and bewail our fate. This is the primary purpose of Tisha B'Av (and the Nine Days as a whole). We neither eat nor drink, we read the laments of a people humiliated and degraded again and again throughout its history, and we cry for the countless people and place that have so mercilessly been taken from us. Tisha B'Av allows us--forces us, actually--to sit fully inside of our sorrow. We sit shivah, as it were, for the tragedies that tear at the very heart of the Jewish people.

But shivah eventually ends, and life beckons us forward again. With a dogged faithfulness that almost defies explanation, the Jewish people have always responded to catastrophe by starting over, by creating and re-creating. Mourning what has been lost is critical, but giving up hope--or surrendering our sense of agency in the world--is forbidden. So the rabbis responded to the loss of the most sacred place in Judaism by developing an increasingly powerful sense of the portability of God's presence. If the Temple is no longer, then we will build other temples--our homes, our schools and study halls, and our more local places of worship--in which God's presence can dwell. If we cannot repair the world on a grand scale at this particular moment, then we would do well to remember that we can enact smaller-scale repair at each and every moment. Things may never again be exactly the same as they once were, but even amidst new depths of sorrow and devastation, fidelity and creativity remain possible--and are even required of us.

Judaism urges us to "walk in God's ways," becoming--through our actions--as much like God as we possibly can. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, one of the great Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, emphasized that one of the most important ways for us to emulate God is through exercising our creative powers. Just as God creates worlds, in other words, so should we. And although we are often overtaken by doubts--about ourselves, about the world, perhaps even about God--we are nevertheless bidden to create. Soloveitchik was keenly aware that although creation in general is difficult, creation in the face of destruction is even more so. The highest form of imitatio dei (the imitation of God) is to stand amidst destruction and devastation and commit to rebuilding even and especially there and then. As God rebuilds in the face of despair, so should we. This is what the rabbis sought to do after the Temple was destroyed, and it is what we must seek to do when what is truly sacred to us is--painfully, horribly--gone.

But creativity in and of itself is not enough. Immediately after telling us about the laws of Tisha B'Av, the Mishna--one of the components of the Talmud--takes a fascinating turn, proceeding to discuss the 15th of Av, the Jewish festival of love and companionship: "There were no happier days for Israel than the 15th of Av,." one of only two days on which the daughters of Jerusalem would go out into the fields and meet potential mates (Taanit 4:8).

This juxtaposition is, on the face of it, astounding: Less than a week has passed since the most traumatic day of the year, and already Judaism pulls us into a holiday focused on love and joy?! Here we discover, I think, one of the most critical truths Jewish tradition teaches us about human life: The most profound response possible in the face of destruction is the re-affirmation of love and human connectedness. How should we ultimately respond to devastation and despair? With more love. We bring love precisely into those moments when, and those places where, it seems all but impossible. To my mind, there is no deeper way of becoming like God than by merging love and creativity (hence the unsurpassable joy of having children), especially amidst sorrow and heartbreak. It is this that Judaism seeks to elicit from us.

But even the merger of love and creativity is not yet the complete story. Judaism adds an additional dimension that undergirds and reinforces the earlier ones: We must take comfort in the knowledge that the way things are at this moment is not the way things can--and ultimately must--be. Redemption and transformation are possible, and through the eyes of faith we can see the first glimmers of their arrival. The Shabbat after Tisha B'Av is known as "Shabbat Nachamu," the Shabbat of comfort and consolation. We read the extraordinary prophecy of Isaiah, in which we are assured that despite the pain of present circumstance, love and goodness will eventually triumph:

"Grass withers, flowers fade--
But the word of our God is always fulfilled" (Isaiah 40:8).

It is easy, and deeply tempting, to lose hope of a better reality. The best antidote to despair is God, Who "gives strength to the weary and vigor to the spent" (40:29). God's hope for a better world is never exhausted, and through our faith in God, our own hopes are renewed and reinvigorated.

These, then, are the responses Judaism offers in the face of devastation: First, to mourn. Next, to re-affirm--despite all that we have seen and tasted--the possibility of life, love, and re-creation. And, finally, to take comfort in knowing that the world of which God dreams will eventually come to be. The Rev. Jim Wallis likes to say that "hope is believing despite the evidence, and then watching the evidence change." I would modify his statement just a little bit: "Covenantal faith is believing despite the evidence, and then making the evidence change."

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