Summertime and the living is easy? Not so, say the rabbis of old: summertime and we have some accounting to do: the desert is hot, the sands burning our feet as we wander in the wilderness. Our texts and summer holy days shine the spotlight on our history of loss and alienation and offer us a way to live with and grow through them, back to holiness.
Judaism is a religion of deeds—we don’t really care whether you have faith, as long as you behave like a mensch. Every day we are supposed to work on our souls and our relationships. Every day. Some of it is through prayer. Some through reflection or meditation. Some through study. Some, since we are a people of deeds and actions, through how we treat each other. But it is supposed to be an every day thing…
Because the tradition recognizes that sometimes we don’t achieve the “everyday-ness” we have opportunities throughout the year to get back on track. The Torah helps us out on our spiritual and relational journey. Each season and especially each holy day is geared to kickstart us from a different perspective. Each holy day has a specific spiritual task for us, a way to look at how we interact with the holy and how we interact with the world, and each other.
Before the High Holy Days, we have an entire season of preparation—10 weeks, starting on the 17th of Tammuz, (July 19 in 2011), continuing through Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, which is coming up on the evening of August 8, into Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah.
The sages of old sought to combine the Torah, history and spiritual work into a tightly woven web, entwining the recognition of powerful emotions, experience of catastrophe and coming out of the depths, with comfort and hope for the future.
Because they believed we were responsible for the destruction of the temples, they tied the 17th of Tammuz, the day of the breaching of Jerusalem’s walls in both 586 BCE and 70 CE, with the story of the Golden Calf (if you count 40 days from Shavuot, the day we received the ten commandments, you end up at 17 Tammuz). They tied Tisha B’Av—the day of the destruction of both temples—to the story of the Spies.
Why? In both stories, we acted from our fears, with disastrous results. Our anxiety that Moses was late down the mountain led to the orgy at the foot of a molten calf, and the spies’ fears led them—princes of the people—to compare themselves to grasshoppers who could not face giants, and so sowed doubt into the people.
The connection between giving in to our fears, failing to control them, and the destruction of the temple is profound. If you think the temple represents the axis mundi—that connection between heaven and earth, between ha’av harachamim –the merciful parent—and you, between goodness and chaos… then its loss is overwhelming.
For Tisha B’Av, we read the megillah Eicha, or Lamentations, a powerful cry of five chapters set into a very tight poetic structure: each is in an acrostic form: from alef to tav, Hebrew’s A to Z. When you see that form, you immediately know this is about completeness: the completeness of the destruction, of the pain, of the agony. It is also a “story of the transcendence of catastrophe,” which provided us with the structure to express the primal scream of anguish.
When we observe Tisha B’Av, we look at how we respond to our fears—even the ones, or especially the ones, that are realized. Do we respond by building a Molten Calf or do we respond by holding each other’s hands and planning to move forward together? Tisha B’Av is the lowest point—the hitting bottom, and from there, there is nowhere to go but up. Like the winter solstice, when the days are their darkest, we know that lightness—and hope—are just around the corner.
A friend of mine is the rabbi in Flagstaff, where last summer’s forest fires consumed thousands of acres of old growth. Her congregation, whose homes all survived, are looking outside their windows at their blackened forests in despair. We discussed how redwood forests depend on fire to renew themselves: how after the Mt. Vision fire in Point Reyes almost 20 years ago, the forests experienced a burgeoning of new growth. Tisha B’Av is like that – experiencing the despair of the blackened forest, hopefully ending with the knowledge that our souls, like the trees, can be renewed, if only the circumstances are right.
 Mintz, Alan. Hurban: Responses to Catastrophe in Hebrew Literature. New York: Columbia University Press. 1984, p. x.