Drasha for Tisha b’Av 5780/Wed 29th July 2020

by Robert Freudenthal

The writing is the opinion of the author and does not necessarly reflect that of Kehillah North London.

It is often remarked that the Jewish calendar enables us to observe and mark the passing of time, with a heavy emphasis of the seasons.  We all associate being outside in the chill of Sukkot with the start of Autumn and the end of the harvest season, Chanukah with deepest winter – when we are in desperate need of additional light, and Pesach with the optimism of spring time, complete with boiled eggs and fresh parsley.

The Jewish calendar, and the festivals, also encourage us to notice the lunar cycle – which in London with all of our street lights and light pollution can be easy to miss – with Sukkot, Tu b’shevat, Purim and Pesach all held on the full moon.

Tisha b’Av however is none of these things.  It is not an agricultural holiday.  It is not on a full moon, or on a new moon.  But Tisha b’av reminds us of that other calendar that we all live by – our emotional calendar.  

Tisha b’Av is a day of loss, and of mourning.  I think we are all familiar with the “calendar” nature of our losses – whether it is the pain of an anniversary of a bereavement – or the cumulative nature of how loss is experienced, how one loss can connect us with another, and another, inter-connecting years with each other.  In my professional role, working in a mental health team for older adults, I have seen time and time again how the loss of independence in an older adult can bring up difficult experiences from many years previously, with each loss emotionally connected to a previous, earlier, loss.

Tisha b’Av is our collective difficult anniversary, where we mourn not just the loss of the first and second temples, but also many other historic catastrophic events that befell the Jewish people.

As we all know, losses can be experienced in different ways – with anger, or rejection, or even with a hope that things can be different.  All of these different forms of loss are expressed in Eichah/Lamentations.

At times of loss and hardship, many religiously-inclined people turn to prayer.  But many of us may not have an easy relationship with prayer.  What is prayer – what does it mean?  Are we praying inwardly, to ourselves, or outwardly to God?  What if we don’t find the language of God to be meaningful?

Yet despite this unease, in just two lunar months and a day we will be singing the Yom Kippur prayers.  

V’al kulam, elvah selichot, selach lanu, mechal lanu, kaper lanu

For all these, O God of mercy, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement

The Yom Kippur liturgy refers to a merciful God, that will forgive our sins, to the gates of heaven that are open, and to steps we can take to further our spiritual journey.

However today, on Tisha b’Av, in Lamentations, we hear about times when God does not forgive, and when prayer are left unanswered, and when the Divine cloud (described in the Torah as a cloud through which God was revealed) becomes cold and distant:

Lamentations 3:42 “We have transgressed and rebelled, and You have not forgiven.

You have clothed Yourself in anger and pursued us, You have slain without pity, You have screened Yourself off with a cloud, that no prayer may pass through”.

Tisha b’Av is our opportunity, our collective calendar moment, to recognise not just the pain and the loss in Jewish history, but also the pain and difficulties many of us may experience in being part of an organised religious community and the challenges we may face in such a community.  We speak often of our love for community and tradition, but less often of the aspects we may struggle with.

There is a story about the Hasidic Rabbi Simcha Bunim.  The story goes that he carried two slips of paper in his pockets at all time, in order to remind himself of two basic facts.  In one pocket it said the words “for my sake was the world created” and in the other it said “I am but dust and ashes”.

I feel that a similar two facts are true for us as a community too.  On the one hand “we are a community which has the power and potential to radically strengthen ourselves and build a new, just world” and on the other “we are but an outpost of a small denomination, of a minority community, in a small country”.  If we don’t recognise the latter, then the former just seems like an uncomfortable fantasy.

So Tisha b’Av can be our opportunity to lean in, or rather to get down on the floor with [as is customary on Tisha b’av to observe the mourning practice of sitting on low chairs] those aspects of Jewish practice that we may struggle with – with doubt, with a “not that comfortable” relationship with Judaism, with a feeling of despondency.  

It is my hope, that by recognising these feelings and challenges now, that perhaps as we move forward soon into Ellul and then the High Holiday period, that we can move from a position of our community being “nothing but dust and ashes” to one of “the very universe is created for our community which has the power to radically uplift us and those around us”.

Of course, we all know that it is not possible to ritualise our own emotions into neat journeys around the calendar, just as the sadness experienced on the anniversary of a bereavement does not stay with us for one day only.  Similarly, on Tisha b’av, the hope and joy we might experience from being around others can seep into the day.  With that in mind I would like to close with the penultimate line of Lamentations, which is normally chanted after the book has been read to lift us up with a positive note:

“Take us back, God, to Yourself

And let us come back;

Renew our days as of old”