JULY 27, 2017 – On the ninth day of the month of Av, Tisha B’Av, we commemorate the destruction of the Temple nearly 2,000 years ago. On this day, we relive not only our own tragic past, but may also experience our whole world as a broken and traumatized place, for it is taught that the Temple is a microcosm of all of creation. And yet, in the depths of bitterness and suffering, we find messages of hope and healing.
Nothing compares to experiencing Tisha B’Av in Jerusalem, as I have had the privilege to do. We would sit in an ancient street of Second Temple times facing Robinson’s Arch, in the excavations near the Western Wall, and, according to custom, chant the haunting words of Lamentations by candlelight.
“Eichah! How is it possible? The proud majestic city of Jerusalem, in ruins! Her inhabitants in exile! Her enemies rejoicing!” The profound experience of fear, loss, and estrangement I have felt in those moments has also been a spiritual opening, encouraged by the wisdom of our sages.
Tisha B’Av is a time to rouse ourselves to the process of teshuvah that is so fundamental to our moral character, both as individuals and as a people. Teshuvah means turning and returning: to other people, to God, and to our truest selves.
This coming Shabbat, just prior to Tisha B’Av, is Shabbat Hazon, the Shabbat of Vision. The prophet Isaiah calls on us to leave the pathway of selfishness and divisiveness that, our tradition teaches, was responsible for the destruction of the Temple.
“Wash yourselves clean; cease to do evil; learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow. Come, let us reach an understanding, says the Lord … Be your sins like crimson, they can turn snow white …”
Rabbi Alan Lew, of blessed memory, thought of teshuvah and the High Holidays as a journey of transformation that begins with Tisha B’Av when the walls of the Temple literally came crashing down. Those who reflect on this idea, deeply and reverently, may start to experience the crumbling of other walls. Like those we build to protect ourselves from our fear of mortality and the imperfect reality of our lives, or walls that shut out the cries of the suffering and the full humanity of our neighbors, or walls that inhibit our experience of the Divine presence.
We all build walls, don’t we? Teshuvah can be understood as the process of dismantling these walls, brick by brick.
So in as much as Tisha B’Av is about destruction and estrangement from God, it is a terribly sad time. Yet it is also the beginning of the process of teshuvah and, therefore, a time of hope and promise.
The first section of the Book of Deuteronomy that we read on Shabbat Hazon is considered one of the Torah’s most emphatic calls to teshuvah. As the Israelites stand at the border of the Promised Land, 40 years after the sins that condemned them to wandering, the root word paneh (to turn) is repeated seven times. “Turn and begin your journey … we turned and we passed by the way of the wilderness of Moav … and we turned and we went up to Bashan,” and so on.
After Tisha B’Av, there are seven weeks until Rosh Hashanah and during this time, the prophetic haftarah readings each Shabbat will be about comfort.
Many of us may need comfort and support as we ask ourselves: Do we really want to keep building walls? Or is it time for us to turn?
Rabbi Alison Adler is the spiritual leader of Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly.