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“Night Vision”: The Grief and Hope of Tisha B’Av

Shabbat Chazon 5779 / 10 August 2019

August 13, 2019

Shabbat Shalom. I am grateful to be back on the bimah at BZBI this shabbat, this time as a member of the clergy team of this beloved community that has meant so much to our family the past five years. This past July, Yosef, Zohar, Shir and I had the blessing of spending three weeks in Jerusalem. As a David Hartman Center fellow, I studied Torah at the Hartman Institute with an inspiring group of rabbinic colleagues. Our children spent time at the playground down the street from where we stayed and consumed copious amounts of ice cream and bamba, Israel’s notorious peanut flavored cheese-doodle-like snack. In fact, bamba was one of Shir’s first words this summer as we celebrated his first birthday; and one of Zohar’s first complete Hebrew sentences was, “Ani gelidah,” I. Am. Ice cream.”

Upon landing at Ben Gurion airport, we found a cab and rode on K’vish Ehadthe main highway to Jerusalem. Zohar looked out the window eagerly, and each time we passed a wall or a pile of stones or really any kind of structure, she would ask, “Is that the kotel?” She had heard about the kotel in school and it was her way of asking, “Are we there yet?”

The week before we left Israel, our family finally spent a day in the Old City. We brought the kids to the Kotel, to touch the stones, smoothed by generations of sweat on hands, and tears on cheeks. We walked through puddles of crumpled notes on the ground as the strong summer sun pulsed on the plaza. The wall–as a ruin, a holy remnant of the Second Temple–stands as a reminder of the catastrophic destruction of our people’s central place of worship. And even as a ruin, the kotel has continued to serve as a place of prayer: since the 16th century, Jews from all over the world have come to this site to pour out their hearts to the Holy One, in the hope of a better future. It is a place of intensity, of heightened symbolism, a cauldron of political and religious tensions.

It is a place where we mourn for what is lost and a place where we seek out openings for what is yet to be, for our lives, for our people, for our beloved Jerusalem.

This evening, we will begin our yearly observance of Tisha B’Av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. On this day of communal mourning, we commemorate the destruction of both the first and second temples in Jerusalem, in 586 B.C.E, and 70 C.E. These devastating events rent the fabric of Jewish life and shattered the sense of order, meaning and purpose for our ancestors and for our ancient rabbis. The Book of Eicha, Lamentations, which we chant on Tisha B’Av, captures the experience of chaos, displacement and disorientation. Theologian Kathleen O’Connor describes how this book of Lamentations “marks out the place of ruptured life, when the old story fails and a new one has yet to appear.”[1]

On Tisha B’Av, we sit in this place where “the old story fails and” the “new one has yet to appear.” The Book of Lamentations is made up of multiple narrators and voices bearing witness to the horrors of the destruction of the Temple at the hands of the Babylonians. Notably – one voice is missing. The voice of God. As Kathleen O’Connor describes, the absence of God’s voice serves to “symbolize this vacuum of meaning, this liminal world of impasse, this time when the old life has ended and no new imaginings are yet possible.” (Lamentations & The Tears of the World, Kathleen O’Connor, pg. 84-85)

On Tisha B’Av, we allow ourselves to sit in the depths of our grief – to bear witness to the suffering in our history, in our world and in our own souls.

As we read in Eicha[2]:

עַל־אֵ֣לֶּה ׀ אֲנִ֣י בוֹכִיָּ֗ה עֵינִ֤י ׀ עֵינִי֙ יֹ֣רְדָה מַּ֔יִם כִּֽי־רָחַ֥ק מִמֶּ֛נִּי מְנַחֵ֖ם מֵשִׁ֣יב נַפְשִׁ֑י הָי֤וּ בָנַי֙ שֽׁוֹמֵמִ֔ים כִּ֥י גָבַ֖ר אוֹיֵֽב׃

For these things do I weep,  My eyes flow with tears:  Far from me is any comforter  Who might revive my spirit;  My children are forlorn,  For the foe has prevailed.

This year, as we weep for the Temple in Jerusalem,

We weep, too, for those killed by assault weapons in mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, in Pittsburgh and Poway, in our city of Philadelphia.

We weep for those killed by the horrors of senseless hatred, by the terror of Anti-Semitism and racism.

We weep for refugees stripped of their dignity, denied healthcare and separated from their families.

We weep for the earth heating up, for the species lost to extinction, for the people left without enough food and water.

There are many things to weep for. These days, when I read the news, I find that consolation is hard to come by.  

What do we do in the void, in this place, this time “when the old story fails and a new one has yet to appear”? How do we connect to our life force? How do we forge a path forward?

Rabbi Sharon Brous teaches that our Jewish calendar offers us tools for precisely these moments of disorientation. She describes how we are a “moon people.” As we orient our Jewish calendar around the lunar cycle, in the waning and waxing of the moon, we learn to hold out hope that the light will return, and in the mean-time, to sit with one another in the darkness.

Rabbi Brous writes:

“the moon plants in our hearts an eternal message: the light of hope that emerges in the dark of night is not steady and consistent. It’s fluid. Sometimes, it’s brilliant and bright and ambitious, and sometimes, it’s but a sliver of light.”[3]

When I think about the seemingly intractable problems we face, I try to remember that, when we feel stuck, the ground under our feet is in motion. The earth is turning and traveling on her path around the sun. Our cells are regenerating. Breath is moving through us. When we are frozen in despair, things are happening, beneath the surface, invisible to the eye; as the light of the moon swells and subsides.

The Chassidic masters teach that on this Shabbat before Tisha B’Av known as Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbat of Vision, we are granted a vision of the Third Temple. Now, whether or not we believe there should be a next installment of the Temple, it is a powerful teaching that precisely in this moment, as we stand at the edge of the abyss, we are given a glimpse of Geulah, of redemption. Something in our souls perceives that despite everything, redemption is still possible. Our spirits sense that there will be a way out and back and forward for our people after exile. Though we can’t imagine what it will look like, we have hope that there will be a future. By bearing witness to what is broken, by sitting here in the uncertainty, by expressing our lamentations, we make space for new openings.

In her gorgeous book, Hope in the Dark, the writer Rebecca Solnit asserts:

“Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable… It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.” [4]

Solnit describes how sometimes we have to break down walls in order to catch a glimpse of the light.

She writes:

Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal… To hope is to give yourself to the future – and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.”

As Jews, we give ourselves to the future by revisiting our past. We tell our stories over and over again. In these stories, we see the truth of the braiding together of light and darkness always, our narratives moving in spirals and waves. Our stories hold the keys to redemption – they link our past to our present to our future. They are amulets of hope. They are the axes we use to break down doors in an emergency.

And so, after everything we have endured, at the end of the chanting of Eicha, we recite the verse.

הֲשִׁיבֵ֨נוּ יְהוָ֤ה ׀ אֵלֶ֙יךָ֙ ונשוב [וְֽנָשׁ֔וּבָה] חַדֵּ֥שׁ יָמֵ֖ינוּ כְּקֶֽדֶם׃[5]

Take us back, O God, to Yourself, And let us come back; Renew our days as of old!

And we are taught that on Tisha B’Av – the Messiah will be born.

To be a Jew is to never give up on the possibility of redemption.

On Tisha B’Av, as we sit in the thickness of our grief for what we have lost, we are granted what Rabbi Vicki Hollander calls, “night vision.”[6] 

Od lo avda tikvateinu – We have not lost our hope yet. We have been here before and we have a long way to go. We do not yet know what might emerge from these times, but we can trust in our night vision.

In the wake of the destruction of the Temple came the Talmud – the wellsprings of rabbinic Judaism came forth. Amidst generations of Anti-Semitism and after the unimaginable horrors of the Shoah – our people wielded the power tool of hope and built the State of Israel.

This Tisha B’Av, my moon people,
may we sit in the darkness together.
May we be reminded that we carry the power tool of hope,
and the gift of night vision.
May we never give up on the possibility of redemption.

[1] Kathleen O’Connor, Lamentations & the Tears of the World, 2002

[2] Lamentations 1:16

[4] Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, (Second Edition, 2016)

[5] Lamentations 5:21