Pluralistic Perspectives Tisha b’Av: From Pain to Judgment to Forgiveness
In my understanding, our ritual year cycle is not about knowing or remembering particular beliefs or mytho-historical facts. It is about opening ourselves to certain experiences, and the ritual memory being no more and no less than the portal to that experience.
While some forms of knowledge can be assimilated on the spot, a directed experience, as opposed to a random experience, takes a great deal of preparation. Much of our tradition is, in fact, about preparing for directed experiences. In our daily shacharit, we prepare for the Amidah by saying Psukei D’zimrah and Shema. In our yearly holiday cycle, we begin preparing for Pesah on the Shabbat before Rosh-Hodesh Adar, for Shavuot on Pesah, for Yom-Kippur and Sukkot on Rosh Hodesh Elul. And on the 17th of Tamuz, we begin preparing for Tisha b’Av.
What are we preparing for during these three between the 17th of Tamuz and Tisha b’Av? How does it fit into the larger year cycle of holidays?
Experiencing the Needs of the Shekhinah
The Ba’al Shem Tov is often quoted as saying that you should pray for the needs of the Shekhinah (indwelling presence of God in the world) not for your own. How then, his students ask, is one to know what the needs of the Shekhinah are? You look at your own life, they answer, and through this you can discern the needs of the Shekhinah.
I find this to be a very helpful directive for Tisha b’Av. When we evoke and remember our suffering and the destructions we have endured, either personal or national, the point is not just to remember our own suffering. We are using our own experience of suffering to open ourselves to the suffering of the Shekhinah. In other words, the pain of a single starving child is without measure. The pain of a world with hundreds of thousands of starving children is totally beyond comprehension. Each one of these individual experiences of suffering is an expression of something fundamentally wrong in our world. This “fundamental wrong” is what we call the Exile of the Shekhinah – God being manifest in the world in twisted ways born of alienation rather than connection. This is the destruction that we mourn on Tisha b’Av and that we dedicate our lives to repairing.
Pain that large can easily become an abstract idea that we connect to only at an intellectual level. We therefore connect to the suffering of the Shekhinah through pain that we have experienced and is real for us. But the point of the Tisha b’Av rituals is not to feel sorry for ourselves. The point is to reach at least one moment of identification, of physically crying for the suffering of the Shekhinah.
Managing the Pain
A pain that large can also be overwhelming. The halachot (practices) of Tisha b’Av help us work through the pain. The rituals create a vessel that allows for the experience of the mourning; but like the halachot of personal mourning, they also create a vessel to contain the pain and lead us out of it. The depth of the sorrow is the night of Tisha b’Av. The road out begins on Tisha b’Av day (I think in the morning, but more clearly ritually from noon on), and culminates with the celebrations of the 15th of Av.
For very sensitive people, this pain can also be overwhelming throughout the year. I heard our teacher, Rabbi Arthur Green, offer a teaching on coping with suffering based on his reading of Genesis 42:1:
וַיַּרְא יַעֲקֹב, כִּי יֶשׁ-שֶׁבֶר בְּמִצְרָיִם Jacob saw that there is sustenance in Egypt
Rabbi Green teaches that both meanings of the word “shever” are true in this verse. Ya’akov Avinu saw that there was brokenness (shever) in Egypt that he was called upon to fix, but also that there was sustenance (shever) for him there. This I remember of what I heard from my teacher and the following is my understanding: amidst all the brokenness in the world, we are called upon to choose particular narrow places, specific aspects of brokenness that are the focus of our individual work, always remembering the Talmudic injunction:
תפשת מרובה לא תפשת One who grabs too much, grabs nothing.
For the sake of tikkun olam (healing the world), it is important that the work we choose be sustainable both in terms of providing a sense of personal meaning and enthusiasm and also simple physical sustenance. The brokenness we address should be one that also sustains us.
Tisha b’Av in the Year Cycle: Judging God
It is important to remember that the process of forgiveness that culminates on Yom Kippur begins on the 17th of Tamuz. According to the Mishnah (Ta’anit 4), on the 17th of Tamuz, Moshe came down from the mountain, saw the people worshiping the golden calf and shattered the tablets. On Yom Kippur, Moshe came down from the mountain with the second tablets and the people knew that they had been forgiven.
One of the important lessons of the ten days of teshuva from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur is that you cannot be forgiven unless you yourself can forgive and that neither is possible without honesty. The judgment day of Rosh HaShanah is a call for brutal honesty, looking truthfully at who we are and everything we have done, evaluating what we are proud of and what needs to change. It is the forgiveness of Yom Kippur that allows us to transcend and utilize the past and go forward with the change we have recognized we need. Between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we have the practice of asking forgiveness from every person we may have hurt over the past year. This practice is inspired by the Mishnah (Yoma 8) that says that Yom Kippur will not atone for sins between people unless the person who was hurt forgives the perpetrator. I think that this is meant to allow every person to be a forgiver before entering Yom Kippur. If you are not able to forgive, how could you believe that you yourself could be forgiven? And if you were able to “extend beyond your limits” and forgive another who had harmed you, certainly the Holy Blessed One, who is known as “your friend and the friend of your parents” (Proverbs 27:10), can do the same.
But, the truth is that we must go through the whole process of forgiveness with God as well. We need to forgive God, and not just our human friends, before we can be forgiven. In order to do that, we need to face honestly and without apologetics the pain and suffering that are part of living in this world – or in mythic language, the suffering that God has inflicted upon us. That is the essence of the month of Av.
Within the month Av, the ninth day is God’s Day of Judgment – the one day a year that we refer to God not as the “God of my salvation, whom I trust and do not fear” (Isaiah 12:2) but rather as “God who was like an enemy… who massacres with no compassion” (Lamentations 2:5, 21). The ninth day of Av is the day we acknowledge Hurban Yerushalayim. We usually translate this as the “destruction of Jerusalem,” but Jerusalem is also “yir’eh shalem” a vision of wholeness. Tish’ah b’Av is the destruction of the vision of wholeness that we may have had, that may even be the driving force of our life, that is now shattered on the rock of evil and suffering. When we acknowledge that shattering, our love gives birth to disappointment, anger and deep sadness.
But if we cannot be that brutally honest, how will we ever forgive God? And if we cannot forgive God, how will we ever allow ourselves to be forgiven?
The cycle does not end with God’s Day of Judgment. Following Tish’ah b’Av is the day we forgive God – the 15th of Av. This is why the Mishnah (Ta’anit 4) says, “Israel’s most joyous days were the 15th of Av and Yom Hakippurim.” On the 15th of Av, we forgive the Blessed One; and on Yom Kippur, the Blessed One forgives us. They are days of coming together, of love and hope.
Of this period of the year, it is taught, כֹּחַ מַעֲשָׂיו, הִגִּיד לְעַמּוֹ God told of the strength of Her deeds to Her people
The numerical value of “ko’ah” (strength) is 28 and the word “higeed” (told) can also be understood, based on its root, as drawn. In these 28 days, between the 17th of Tamuz and the 15th of Av, power is drawn to the people who sit in judgment over the deeds of the Holy Blessed One.