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Why I’m not “celebrating” Tisha b’Av this year (again)


Folks, I’ve been remiss. Vacation, then re-entry, into Deuteronomy and nary a word from your sponsor. I just haven’t felt like it. However, tonight begins Tisha b’Av, and so as not to disappoint myself too much more, I’m re-posting here what I said a year ago. 

Tonight is Tisha b’Av, the 9th of Av, a day that commemorates almost every majorly rotten thing that has happened to Jews in the last 2500+ years:

  • The destruction of the 1st Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.
  • The destruction of the 2nd Temple by the Romans in 70 CE.
  • The crushing of the Bar Kokhba rebellion in 132 CE.
  • Expulsion from England in 1290 and from Spain in 1492.
  • The mass deportation from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka in 1942.
  • The bombing of  the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994, killing 86.

Destruction. Exile. Deportation. Understandably, we mourn. We keen. We read the Book of Lamentations, verse after verse describing the fate of Jerusalem and her inhabitants — how the walls burned and mothers ate their children, how our enemies overpowered us. The Book of Job is also read in some congregations for good measure.

Folks, I’ve tried to embrace the 9th of Av, but I just can’t. My spouse Bruce says it’s good to remind yourself at least once a year what it is like to lose everything. Rachel Barenblat, the Velveteen Rabbi, finds meaning in the holiday thus: (W)e go down as a community into that pit of despair — in order to remember devastation and then rise up again. The spiritual work of the coming month of Elul, during which we prepare ourselves for the Days of Awe… has a different valance when we come to it bearing the memories of a day of deep communal sorrow.

Try as I might, though, I just can’t make it work:

1. The theology. The Temples were destroyed (with God’s help) because of our bad deeds. For national sins and forsaking Torah, the 1st Temple came down; for causeless hatred the 2nd.  The reasoning behind causeless self-hatred appeals – we should lose our shirts if we can’t play nice –  but not enough to make up for the rest of the cause & effect theology.

2. Modernity. Yes, what happened to our ancestors was horrific. Yes, the destruction of the Temples (every other calamity was tacked on to the original observance) was heart-wrenching. But without this destruction and subsequent exiles, we would not have rabbinic Judaism, the Talmud, and most of what we have come to think of as “Jewish.”  Much as I love Leviticus, I have no desire to go back there. Not interested in building that 3rd Temple.

3. Victimology. So much of Jewish communal life centers around “they’re out to get us.” And they have been, still are from time to time. But, if you measure Jewish life in 2010 by the email, snail mail fundraising solicitations, and YouTube videos I receive, we are on the verge of falling prey to virulent anti-Semitism, nuclear annihilation, and being pushed into the sea at every moment. It’s miserable being a Jew. There’s a hell of a lot more words written about the (next) Holocaust & Hamas than Shabbat & Torah.

4. The news. I don’t need to read Lamentations to see that life is precious and precarious. I just have to read The New York Times or Ha’aretz or any home town newspaper. Terrible things happen to people every day and for no good reason. Jews or not-Jews, it stinks.

I think about loss every day. Maybe it’s my temperament. Maybe it’s why I’m a poet. (Google “death” and “poetry” and you’ll come up with 9.8 million results.) Maybe I’m not typical, but I go into every High Holy Day season with mortality on my mind. Another year has passed, another 365 days of time now lost to me. If I were to observe Tisha b’Av, it would be to grieve in a more universal fashion a la Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s dirge for the environment. But, truthfully, that feels like just another excuse to acknowledge that a) people are stinky and b) the world is going to hell in a hand basket — thoughts I think almost every day, holiday or not.

I’ve kissed my husband and had a fruit smoothie this morning (neither allowed). I’m writing and walking and making plans for tomorrows which might not come. Call me contrary, but that’s what I’m doing today.

This year I plan to read up on the social justice demonstrations going on in Israel, work on my stepdaughter’s upcoming nuptials, and maybe even do a bit of painting at the synagogue (as in re-building the infrastructure). Still planning for tomorrows that might not come.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 08/08/2011 12:26 pm

    I totally understand and especially in view of what is happening in the middle east BUT I learned something from a recent drash by our beloved rabbi Mira, “Justice, justice, shall you pursue, the Torah commands us. To pursue what is good and just is to carry the names and stories of our forebears into the future, never leaving them behind.” What this is says to me is, don’t forget history and keep it front and center. The lessons are bigger than what’s in our immediate consciousness and experience. We may not even fully understand them. Just a thought.

  2. sue swartz permalink*
    08/08/2011 7:39 pm

    Of course we can’t forget history. But when history overwhelms the present & the future, I’m not such a fan.

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