BS”D By Briah Cahana July 24, 2020
In Jewish time, we have entered the nine days before Tisha Be’av, mourning destructions and disasters that have befallen our people from as long as 2500 years ago, including the iconoclastic demolition of the two Temples in Jerusalem. In the midst of full summer heat, out of sync with the season, we step into a period of collective grief. Leading up to the day, we diminish our joy and progressively enter the mindset of mourners culminating into the 9th of Av, the day where we fast, abstain from washing and anointing ourselves and shun comforts and pleasures. Does this performative re-enactment of grief actually assist us in re-experiencing the past tragedies?—And even if we come close, for what purpose?
This week, we also begin reading the last book of the Torah, Sefer Devarim (Deuteronomy). This entire book (and parasha) recounts Moses’ reflections, teachings and warnings to the Israelites as he stands at the precipice of the Promised Land and at the end of a 40 years and 12 month era of wandering in the desert (1:5). After this time, the generation of militant, rebellious people ((אנשי מלחמה (2:14) have died off and Moshe will perish with them, but he speaks with their children who “do not yet know good or bad” (1:39). So, where does Moshe begin the story? What memories and lessons does he infuse them with to strengthen them before entering the land? Surprisingly, he starts with the negative, from when the Israelites leave Horeb—the “marriage canopy” –and then describes the extended tumultuous honey-moon period; the events and locations where their parents sinned and tested G-d to the extreme with little trust and belief. Sforno understands that Moshe begins his reflections to the children in the manner of rebuke, tochecha, so that the children will know that had their parents not angered G-d, they would have gone into the land earlier. To the children who weren’t physically present to receive the Ten Commandments at Horeb, Moses is teaching them through words and stories, that in the face of their fears and doubts, deep faith and commitment to G-d is what’s needed. Hashem is not impervious to the Israelites’ complaints, emotions and prayers and they will face their own challenges when entering the land, so beware and learn from their mistakes. This is a heavy charge that Moses is imparting to the Israelites at the end of his life—an individual who also feels the heaviness of his own mistakes and unfulfilled dream of entering the land.
When we have a moment at the end of a period of time to reflect on where we’ve been, how our destinies and dreams have migrated with our choices and life-circumstances, how our relationships have shaped us, what do we say? What words (devarim) flow from us? With all the twists and turns our lives take, are we joyous with our journeys and the people we’ve gathered and grown into along the way? How have our dreams developed and what legacy is there to share with the future? There will have been good choices and bad choices and unexpected surprises to dwell on, lessons learned, advice heeded and ignored. Moses begins with tochecha, but then sprinkles in words of courage throughout the speech and lets the Israelites know that Hashem will help them enter the land in safety. The dream that couldn’t be fulfilled with their parents will be fulfilled through them. The beauty of what Moses tells the Israelites is that even with all the twists and turns, G-d holds onto His promises—the plans may change, it may take longer to arrive at the destination, the story may be complicated, in other words, “life may happen,” but G-d will not abandon us. We may feel far away from G-d, disappointed and angry, even, but the dream and bond is not forgotten.
To return to the question of what is the purpose of gearing down in sadness toward Tisha Be’Av? Why do we take on external mourning rituals in order to connect to the scabbed over pain that struck our ancestors? I’d like to suggest that Tisha Be’Av is only the starting point to tap into our own grief. It is the moment of pause we have to reflect on our distance, on our journey, on how far we’ve come from our dream from Mount Sinai, when G-d’s revelation was clear. From Tisha Be’Av to Rosh Hashana there are 7 weeks, which parallel the 7 weeks of counting from Pesach to Shavuot. Our collective re-telling of our liberation from Egypt was not that long ago, but what has happened in the interim? What have we done with our freedom? Have we fallen for our old traps and limitations? We prepared so much to receive and merit the Torah on Shavuot, but what happened the day and weeks after? In the Torah, Moses reminds the Israelites of how they tested Hashem again and again. His tochecha comes at the moment when he pauses to reflect on the trials he, G-d and the Israelites endured. Does he tell the Israelites this out of his own grief or to impart a somberness and humility into the next generation? Tisha Be’av is our pause and tochecha, we feel abandoned in the desert. It is a time we can experience how far from G-d we feel and can’t fathom how we will ever be able to connect again. But G-d has not abandoned us. Just like we counted toward G-d leading up to Har Sinai, after Tisha Be’av, G-d is now counting toward us, toward consolation and reminding us the potential of creation in every moment. Rosh Hashanah takes us back to creation, to rebirth, but we must begin that process with a pause and letting us speak the words of our life and experiences and truths thus far.
May this Shabbat Chazon allow us to remember our dreams and what truly makes us feel alive. And may we be able to begin the process of returning to G-d with closeness and that G-d has been with us on the journey all along. “Hashem has blessed you in all your undertakings. He has watched over your wanderings through this great wilderness; the Lord your G-d has been with you these past forty years; you have lacked nothing.” (Deut 2:7)