By Gabby Kaplan-Mayer and Miriam Brosseau
Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av, falls on Monday July 31st, at sundown. A communal day of mourning, Tisha B’Av is an annual fast day in traditional Jewish communities that commemorates a number of tragedies in Jewish history, including the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem.
The theme of destruction is something that all of us can relate to – every human being has experienced at least one moment in which we have felt like everything that we’ve held dear has been destroyed.
If the Jewish calendar teaches us anything, it’s that life is cyclical – for better and for worse. As Rabbi Jessy Gross shared with us, she always turns to Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) in times of trouble. And why? “I think it’s the overarching reminder that sometimes what you think ought to happen doesn’t turn out that way,” she told us. “Also the idea that all things are hevel – fleeting breath – constant state of blowing in the wind. It’s always been a real balancer for me despite naming everything that can often feel unfair or not as it was supposed to be. Leaving us with all to do is to drink and be merry under the sun.”
While it’s important to have communal days to mourn for the destruction that’s happened to our community over our history, it’s also essential to recognize the wisdom that has helped the Jewish people pick up and move forward after tragedy – the light that gets in. In one of the author’s (Miriam) ELI Talks, she spoke of the concept of “ahavat yisrael” as vulnerability practiced on the level of an entire nation. It’s often these moments of brokenness that allow for the deepest sense of connection.
One of the authors (Gabby) especially loves the Jewish proverb ‘A little bit of light pushes away the darkness.’ In the hardest times, maybe we’re only able to experience that very little bit of light … but when we are able to recognize that light is present, we find the strength to get through whatever obstacles and challenges lie ahead. As Leonard Cohen sang so powerfully, “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”
Another speaker, Robin Carus, sharing a nugget of Jewish wisdom, spoke of the healing power of Psalm 121 when things fall apart.
This piece resonates for Sara Kupfer, an upcoming ELI speaker, as well. She told us, “Whenever I feel lost, uncertain, alone, I find myself whispering these words and I am reassured that G-d is looking out for me every minute of every day. From beginning to end, Psalm 121 is my comfort in the face of personal destruction and insecurity.”
Poet and liturgist Alden Solovy agrees, and shared with us a palpable example of the connective, healing power of the psalm in action. “With each national moment of danger here in Israel, Psalm 121 seems to magically appear in the liturgy. On the first Friday night after the three boys were kidnapped – and we hoped against the odds that they would be found alive – our congregation sang it together between Kabbalat Shabbat and Ma’ariv. No need to explain. A simple song together. A song sung with tears. For me, the crescendo came with the verses, “By day the sun will not harm you, nor the moon by night. Hashem will protect you from every evil; Hashem will guard your soul.” In part, it’s the poetic parallelism within and between these verses; or maybe it’s the idea that our days move forward with God’s love and kindness, no matter what we/I have to face. In communal prayer, this brings me amazing comfort.”
And while Jewish text and liturgy has an incredible ability to capture our sense of loss, and bring comfort in the moment, it also carries a sense of hope – the cycle begins again, and rebuilding is just around the corner.
“The story at the end of Gemara Macot 24a and 24b where Rabbi Akiba has the remarkable capacity to laugh at the scenes of destruction and tragedy that elicit crying from his pupils” is one of educator Shalom Orzach’s favorite examples. “When questioned, he responds that just as the prophecies for this destruction came about, now I am even more confident that the prophecies for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the return of the Jews from their exile will too surely come about. This extraordinary optimism in the face of calamity is inspiring.”
Educator Sandra Lilienthal brought it all together for us with the simplest and most powerful lesson of all. “This too shall pass. Remember to be grateful for what you have, even when you mourn what you lost.”
May we all be truly present in this time of vulnerability, comfort, and rebuilding.
Philadelphia-based Author/Educator Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer directs Jewish Learning Venture’s “Whole Community Inclusion” initiative and edits “The New Normal: Blogging Disability.” Her most recent book is The Little Gate-Crasher.
By day, ELI speaker and team member Miriam Brosseau designs communications strategy and helps nonprofits unleash their stories to change the world. By night, she’s a singer/songwriter and mom of two awesome little dudes (both communications strategists and songwriters in their own rights).