I am writing this little commentary in the week of Tisha B’Av, a fast day commemorating and mourning the destruction of our first and second Temples in Jerusalem. I have great personal difficulty with fasting as a religious activity. In fact I have a strong aversion to almost any penitential practices whether they be viewed as a form of pleading for the community, for personal purification, or for begging forgiveness from God. The fast of Yom Kippur is one which I approach more positively because we have the practice of bringing the joy of hope and forgiveness into our prayers at that time. There is also the beautiful “fringe” midrash view that we are fasting on that particular day mainly to be as the angels, or at least as humans with body and soul in better relational perspective!
Having said this, I feel the weight of my own sins and the weight of the sins of Israel on Yom Kippur...as I do on any weekday when saying tachanun. But I do find that reparation made through a changed heart, through asking forgiveness (both of God and of man), and in giving to charity easier to practice than any form of self-punishment. I have no difficulties with begging forgiveness or with teshuvah...just with physical or psychological expressions which seem tinged with masochism or with self regard. I am aware that we all need to make amends in some way for our failings and I plead along with all Israel for God’s mercy on us His undeserving and often failing servants. I just don’t like cringing and moping.
This makes Tisha B’Av a difficult time for me.
So I ask the question: How may the readings of the current week (Va-etchanan) become food for the journey through this fast day (and beyond)?
In Parshas Vaeschanan we read:
From thence you will seek HaShem your God,and you shall find Him if you seek Himwith all your heart and with all your soul.(Deut4:29)
The fast day of Tisha b’Av marks the start of the long “Season of Return”(teshuvah).
It is the first of the Fifty Days which lead up to Rosh Hashanah.
We read: “From thence you will seek HaShem your God” Deut.4:29.
From “thence” (this fast day) we begin our search for God in teshuvah.
But this week’s Haftarah is also the first of the “Haftarot of comfort”
And as such we are made aware right from the start of the season that it is not just we who are searching for Him.The week also marks the start of the Season of His search for us.
It is the first glimmer not of despair in destruction and failure but of hope that we can arise from the pit of the golden calf to ascend to meet our Father and King.
This ascent through the Fifty Days needs a lot of cheshbon ha nefesh (self examination and critical stock taking) and it is appropriate that it should begin with the remembrance of past sin and its attendant punishment....but the whole point of the season is not so much our purification as our return.
It is not a period of self-improvement. It is a period of altered perspective and recognition that God is forgiving and is searching for us.
You can hear this in Parshas Vaeschanan if you choose to.
Even as we prepare to commemorate the sad memory of the destruction of two temples, the week’s Torah reading bids us derive joy in the midst of sorrow.
“In your distress, when all of these things are come upon you, in the end of days, You will hearken to His Voice”.Deut:4:30
In the same Parshah when we are told how we should instruct our children(see Deuteronomy 6:20), we are given the formula: We were slaves in Egypt but HaShem brought us out by the power of his Mighty Hand. The section then goes on to highlight the “signs and wonders” performed on our behalf, especially the gift of the Torah. In other words: the time of constraint and pain is mentioned, but only to highlight the joy and the miracle of redemption which followed it. Similarly, we remember our enslavement to sin and we remember our rebellions and our hardships, but they are placed in a clear subsidiary slot next to our overwhelming joy in God’s forgiveness and in His unique relationship with Israel.
In the closing words of Eichah which we read on the fast day itself, the words we long to hear will be:
“Turn to Us Lord and we shall turn to You”Lamentations 5:21
In Parshas Vaeschanan we may have read Deuteronomy 4:29 as a call for our effort and whole-heartedness in teshuvah, but when we start the process it is not long before we realise that every turning towards God came from God. Every return to Him from our past sins was because of His Mercy. Every action we experience, the good and the “bad” is the work of His love. In short, we are beginning the season of looking for Him in order to realise that He is even more ardent in wanting to find us.
Yes, we ought to spend time on Tisha B’Av in mourning and recollecting our national failures, our times of difficulty, martyrdom and anguish.
Yes we ought to spend more time as we approach the Yamim Noraim in self-analysis and in confessing our personal and community sins........
But the “How? ” (eichah?) that we need to be asking is not just the
“How could we have got it all so wrong?” associated with the destruction and grief of Tisha b’Av....
The question is not so much “Why was the temple destroyed?”
But “So- How can we rebuild the temple?”
We pray for the restoration of the Temple Service and for the re-dedication of our House of Worship in Jerusalem, but "Temple" may here be taken also as referring to the "Place of our meeting God".
For the contemplative Jew, this means we are looking for ways to rebuild a relationship we may have broken or even destroyed. A way of repairing a channel of communication. A way to allow healing and restoration of spirit to take place.
These fifty days are a time for preparing the way for the Royal Progress.
According to our traditional seasonal imagery-
Our Father and King is about to descend from the heavenly Courts to survey His “Land” and “His People”
And the first thing we are asked to do in acknowledging this very positive way of viewing the start of the teshuvah season is to clear away anything which gets in the way of that process.
Haftaras Vaeschanan instructs us:
“Prepare you the way of the Lord...Make a Highway in the desert...”Isaiah 40:3
The contemplative lives permanently in the desert. For us, this is a place of minimalist spiritual simplicity where God’s Voice may be heard more clearly; a place of trial and testing where one is engaged in a journey balancing trust and initiative, the “manna” and the “warfare” of a religiously Spartan life. Our focus is never our own self-improvement: our focus is making progress towards an encounter. Any cheshbon ha-nefesh we make is simply “highway maintenance”. What we are really attempting to do is to meet God. Preparing the path is merely incidental.
It is not a long step away from this statement to a realisation that the things we call sin are nothing less that a “running away” from that encounter or a deliberate (if concealed) placing of obstructions in the way to prevent a real meeting with God from taking place.
If you are like me and you find the penitential season which is around the corner a potential downer. If you find Tisha b’Av an awfully early time to begin the kind of soul-searching which many postpone till Elul. Try thinking of it all as the start of a process of reconciliation not of recrimination, of an increase in intimacy not with our darker selves but with God. Not as a time for self-mortification, but as a time when the journey towards HaShem can accelerate like a child running to meet his father after a long absence. Seen that way the sooner we start running towards Him the better.
May HaShem find us searching for Him
May these Fifty Days be days of hope and joy
And may we focus not on the shovel digging the earth in front of usBut on the distant approach of the Royal One for whom we labour.
May that give strength to our hands and to our heartsNo matter how we may have failed in our tasks in the past.
May He find us.
Aug 7th 2011