Tisha B’Av: The Spiritual Starting Line

By Rabbi Renée Bauer

Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, begins this Wednesday evening, July 29. It is considered the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, because tradition holds that the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed on this day, along with many other tragic events throughout Jewish history. It is not historically accurate that so many tragedies occurred on the same day, but we can ask what spiritual lesson we can glean from this.

Rabbi Alan Lew, in is his spiritual exploration of the High Holidays, writes:

“There are two ways of looking at the way our tradition has collapsed history on this day, two ways of thinking about the conflation of calamity. We can regard the ninth of Av and the weeks surrounding it as a cursed time... or we can regard the ninth of Av as a time when we are reminded that catastrophes will keep recurring in our lives until we get things right, until we learn what we need to learn from them.” (This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, p. 41)

I am interested in Rabbi Lew’s second suggestion that catastrophes keep recurring until we learn what we need to learn from them. We can look at this on a personal and a communal level. On a personal level, I do not believe that bad things happen to us because we do not get them right. However, patterns of behavior in our relationships and in our decision-making often occur when we have not spent time exploring our inner lives. We continue to alienate those closest to us and continue to make unhealthy choices or live with self-loathing when we do not live with intention.

On a communal level, the idea that catastrophes recur until we learn from them seems especially profound at this moment of national reckoning with racial injustice. Police killings of Black Americans keep recurring. Black Americans are also disproportionately dying from COVID-19. We have not learned the lessons needed to dismantle the systemic racism on which our country was founded.

The observance of Tisha B’Av provides tools for how to address these calamities so we can create change for ourselves and our communities. Tisha B’Av, which is exactly seven weeks before Rosh Hashanah, can be understood as the beginning of the High Holiday season. This is the season of teshuvah, of returning to our most righteous selves. The march from Tisha B’Av to Rosh Hashanah begins with a public display of grief. We fast and recite the book of Lamentations sitting on the floor of candle-lit synagogues. Deep mourning of the brokenness in ourselves and in the world around us is the first step in creating change. Grieving, Jewish tradition teaches, is an essential part of the teshuvah process.

Tradition moves us from grief to comfort with seven weeks of special haftarot, prophetic readings of comfort read every Shabbat from Tisha B’Av to Rosh Hashanah. As we move from the observance of destruction to the renewal of the new year a call to action is added to the comfort of the liturgy. One month before Rosh Hashanah, at the beginning of the month of Elul, we begin blowing the shofar each morning. The shofar arouses us to do the active work of teshuvah, of repair and return. The shofar is the continuity that moves us through the High Holiday season in which we are commanded to do the work to make our lives and our world better for the coming year.

This week I invite you onto this spiritual path that begins with mourning and leads to change. May Tisha B’Av at this difficult moment in our individual and collective lives ignite sparks of change and interrupt the recurring calamities that plague us.

Rabbi Renée Bauer is the director of chaplaincy and outreach at Jewish Social Services of Madison in Madison, WI. She was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and earned her B.A. from Brown University.

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