July 22 this year has brought the start of a process in Judaism that will culminate in the middle of October, yet most Jews are not attuned to that calendar. The process begins with the Jewish month of Av, known as the saddest month in our calendar, because on the ninth day of Av, commemorated at B’nai Israel on Wednesday evening July 29, both Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed, separated by more than 600 years. And on that day, some 1400 years later, Jews were expelled from Spain, a year that has different association for Americans: 1492. So, the 9th of Av is the saddest day in the year, and has been for so many generations, at least, until the mid 20th century when it was displaced by the most horrific event ever, the Shoah, commemorated now by Yom HaShoah in April.
What does Tisha B’Av have to do with mid October and holidays in between?
It sets into motion a process of coming from the depths of despair to regain our balance, however possible, as a people, even unto the point of the culmination with Sukkot, associated with being Judaism’s happiest holiday.
Here is how it works, and as you consider the process, you could also reflect on how it might apply in your own ongoing life, riddled with ups and downs, highs and lows: while objectively speaking the 1st and 2nd Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed by outside forces, Babylonia the 1st time and Rome the 2nd, the prophets and sages of Israel indicate that we brought these destructions on ourselves, and that outside forces were only instruments of destruction, manifested because of what we did to ourselves.
As you may know, the only reason we exist is because of a unique family that set out to live in accordance with the principle that there was an all-encompassing Power governing the Universe to whom we are accountable and with whom we are connected through these Ancestors by a Covenant. The only way we emerged out of overwhelming conditions of bondage in Egypt was through the rescue by this Force even to the degree of doing so with miracles of timing and activity: plagues in Egypt, a sea splitting, and provisions for survival for 40 years in a wilderness while the 1st generation scarred by slavery raised a next generation destined to return to the land.
This Power was with us, as it were, as we returned to the Ancestral home with a mandate to live by the Torah, the Loaner’s Manual that would instruct us in how to live the Covenant in the way we treated life and one another. We weren’t chosen for privilege but for responsibility. The key to ongoing connectivity was to be in how we lived that Covenant.
When we lost our way in our behavior and ceased to treasure life and human dignity above all else and honor God by the way we made life holy, we lost the ability to vouchsafe our protection, and accordingly were expelled from the Land of Promise. The Temples were destroyed because of inner conflict and hurtfulness within our own people. The conquering nations were considered instruments of the Almighty taking us to task for losing our moral and ethical compass and behaving as if there were no Torah.
Yet, God implanted a remedy, a possibility for continuity through an ability to learn from mistakes, regret them, make amends and resolve to change course, back in the direction of living by Torah: Teshuvah, transformation of attitude and behavior.
All of this is the sequence we live out from mid-summer into fall and it works this way: After absorbing the catastrophes of the destructions of the Temples, we are comforted, week after week, by the prophecies of Isaiah, even as we head into the next month of soul searching, known as Elul, with each letter of that month combining in representing reconciliation that comes out of a heartfelt soul searching: “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is Mine (from Solomon’s Song of Songs) is what Elul is all about, time to reflect, reevaluate, reconsider and redirect priorities. Elul is the month that leads into the start of the world New Year from Jewish perspective, and with it the time to look back on mistakes and traumas and sort through the resources at our command to help us change our ways and reconnect with the Covenantal path. It is commitment to working together instead of alone, looking out for one another instead of just ourselves, and seeing God’s Presence in the people and circumstances presented to us, to turn from bad and do good.
Rosh Hashanah is the 1st tangible expression of optimism after having climbed out of the abyss of destruction. It is joy and happiness not through forgetting our problems and escaping reality, but by discovering and embracing tools by which we can change for the better and make life a blessing for ourselves in the way we do so for others, and honoring God in so doing.
Yom Kippur, then, is the big day of antidote to the pain, suffering and trauma of Tisha B’Av. It is the embracing of God’s great gift of Teshuvah, change in direction, hinged on forgiveness and starting over.
And 5 days after that day of accomplishment comes the happiest time of the year, the fruits of forgiveness and starting over: seeing life’s blessings in what goes well and with whom we share the miracle of life. We commit to making each day a blessing in itself, rather than a stepping stone to some future illusory blessing that may never come, as we trip over ourselves and our wants and appetites. The happiness of Sukkot is achieved by learning from Yom Kippur that the harvest is not the material stuff we so readily worship, but the treasure we find in our homes, the people and relationships that shape our few moments in this piece of Eternity.
And, appropriately enough, the happiest day of all is in Simchat Torah, the rejoicing and dancing with the Torahs, God’s gift, the Loaner Manual teaching us how to get out of the messes we create and guiding us to the long term partnership God has always envisioned for us to embrace.
It all started with Av, 5769, falling into the depths of human failing and catastrophe, but even in the midst of hopelessness and despair, we are given God’s great blessing of rising after the fall and emerging purified and strong once again, poised to make 5770 the year that ushers in the age of Shalom.
Whatever else you are doing this summer, consider the homework presented in the Jewish calendar. It may be the best use of this time of year you could ever imagine engaging.
May God bless us all as we sort through the depths and heights of life in this miraculous corner of the Galaxy, the speck of dust we call Earth.