I promised myself I would write today, because, well, isn’t there so much to say? I am always writing in my mind. I have spent this period of mourning called The Three Weeks trying not to be so sad. Not because I don’t think I have a right to be sad, although certainly many people have much more of a right than I do, and not because I am afraid of my feelings. It’s just that the magnitude of the sadness is too great for a person who needs to be of service to others, teach classes, go to meetings, drive safely, and pay for coffee without tears welled up in her eyes so as not to alarm the barista.
I kept anticipating Tisha B’av with extreme dread. I was afraid that on this day Hamas might want to make things worse. I worried that the day would bring more destruction, as it has in the past. Yet, when I read the news I saw that there was a ceasefire. Unfortunately, I also read that there was a terrorist attack with a tractor in Jerusalem, a shooting incident also in Jerusalem and a stabbing in Ma’ale Adumim. Yet, somehow despite those things, an agreement had been made. There were no code red siren alerts in the breaking news scroll. Operation Protective Edge seems to be over. The IDF has told residents from the south that they can return to their homes. During the course of the fighting, Palestinians launched 3,356 rockets towards Israel. Of those, 578 were intercepted over cities and communities by the Iron Dome system. As for casualties, 64 IDF soldiers and three Israeli civilians were killed and 1,768 Palestinians were killed. Even if it is over now, those numbers are haltingly brutal. And even though they are so small compared to other tragedies, each one is a life, each one matters.
When Tisha B’av arrived I expected all the sadness to come rushing at me. I had been “managing” it, allowing it to come out in small doses, mostly while I’m driving or sitting on the floor in my bedroom. I thought that with all my attempts to keep it at bay so that I could go through the motions of life, that the temporary, poorly constructed dam would break open. I expected a flood. But that’s not what happened. Instead I felt calm and peaceful. I told myself I could be as sad as I wanted, cry as much as I wanted and do nothing. I am fasting, so I don’t have to put on a happy face for the barista. I worked yesterday and knew I could stay home for the morning without feeling guilty about it. I don’t have to pretend to be happy today. I don’t have to try to make it seem as though everything is okay, when it isn’t. And suddenly, it lifted. The fighting stopped on the other side of the world, and all is quiet on the front of my mind. My head has stopped arguing with my heart.
I always wonder if I should fast for a half-day or a whole day on Tisha B’av. Israel exists and we are not exiled in quite the same way. Yet, brokenness and destruction still exist in our world. I fast for peace. I fast because of the longing for things to be different. I fast because I am not always my best self. Many Jews now only fast until mincha. At our synagogue we don’t do mincha until 6 pm, but maybe that actually is a good time to break my fast. It’s not the middle of the day, but it’s not as unhealthy as waiting until sundown. I already have a headache and am hungry, but eating now would be like not having fasted at all. I could give in to the little signs my body is giving me, but that would be like just having waited too long to eat. Fasting requires you to get past that point, that you go past being uncomfortable and into a place of acceptance. Ironically, it is from that place of acceptance of pain, brokenness, and suffering that we start to do the work of planting seeds of hope. It is there that we recognize our purpose in the world. If the world is unjust, it is our job to make it just.
We humans have got complaining down to a science, or maybe it’s an art. The way we point fingers at others and get angry when we perceive errors and misdeeds. We usually assume that when someone else does something wrong, they meant harm, it was evil, but when I make a mistake, it was an innocent one. I am tired of living in a world where everyone is so busy complaining about other people and not turning to themselves and saying “what can I do to make things better?” That’s the question we need to be asking ourselves. At the end of Lamentations the people say to G-d, “return to us so that we may return to you” – it is a statement of asking for G-d’s presence, for that spiritual self-awareness, so that we can begin to do the work we need to do. Instead of demanding that G-d swoop in and fix our problems or blaming the world’s problems on whichever group of people is the easiest target, we ask G-d to help us see what we need to do. Each of us.
We have a story we tell on Tisha B’av. It’s such an oft-repeated tale that I wonder if we even hear its message anymore. The story tells us that the Temple was destroyed because of misunderstanding and finger pointing. Humiliated by not being allowed to stay at a party hosted by his enemy (who accidentally sent him the invitation) Bar Kamtza tells Caesar that the Jews are planning a revolt. He then mutilates the animal Caesar sends to the Temple as a peace offering so that it is not kosher for the sacrifice. Rabbi Zechariah does not accept it, even though he knows Caesar will be incensed, because he worries that people will start bringing unkosher sacrifices. Because of the hatred, ego issues and lying that goes on, it’s unclear who really is responsible for the war that ensues. Is it the host of the party who embarrassed Bar Kamtza so terribly? Is it Bar Kamtza who lied to Caesar and then mutilated his peace offering? Is it Caesar who didn’t investigate thoroughly and whose ego was so easily bruised when the Jews didn’t accept his offering? Or is it Rabbi Zechariah who was too scrupulous to let them offer up an unclean animal? One of the most frustrating things about the story is that at the end Rabbi Yochanan, who feigns his own death to escape the war, blames the whole thing on Rabbi Zechariah.
If everyone involved had worried less about his own “being right” and thought about a greater good, then none of those things would have happened. But we have not learned this lesson. In fact, we teach this story year after year and most of us, including myself, keep making the same mistakes. Perhaps that is our lot as humans, but I keep hoping that with each turning year, we come closer to returning to our purpose as humans, that we start to focus on our own agency, rather than pointing fingers at, accusing and complaining about others. Instead, we all need to look in the mirror and ask “what can I do to make things better?”