(with gratitude to my study partner, Rabbi SaraLeya Schley, for the insights from Mei HaShiloakh)
This past Saturday evening and Sunday we observed Tisha B’Av, the ninth of the month of Av, traditionally the day on which the First and Second Temples were destroyed, the Jews were expelled from Spain, and many other painful calamities are said to have befallen the Jewish people. This day, which follows three weeks of warning or rebuke that begin on the 17th of Tammuz, when the Temple walls were breached, is called by the S’fardim the “black fast,” as distinguished from the “white fast” of Yom Kippur. On it we observe all the strictures of the Yom Kippur fast—no food or water for twenty-five hours, no creams or ointments, no leather shoes—but instead of aspiring “upward,” we sit on the floor like mourners, eating ashes, reading laments, descending deep into the grief of loss.
In the wisdom of our ritual calendar, Tisha B’Av allows us to mingle grief over the past with the pain of recent and current losses, opening us deeply to our own brokenness. Through the purification of tears, we can empty ourselves of old stories in preparation for work of teshuvah (return, to ourselves and to G-d) that will lead us into the High Holy Days. In our Tisha B’Av observance this year, shared with Kehilla, Chochmat Ha-Lev, and Knesset Ha-Lev, we focused on the damage to our Temple Earth, the species lost, the air and water polluted, the climate changing and causing loss of life. And many of us have experienced personal losses this past year as well—the Temples of our bodies besieged by illness, the familiar structures of relationships crumbling as dear ones passed away.
Perhaps because this has been a year of so much loss, this was a particularly difficult Tisha B’Av. I found it hard to break through the protective shell of numbness around my heart and truly grieve. This week, almost abruptly,we enter the seven-week cycle of nekhemata or consolation, each week marked by a special haftarah reading from the book of Isaiah. Nakhamu, nakhamu ami, comfort, comfort, O my people, this week’s haftarah begins. Just as I couldn’t fully grieve, I’m having a hard time moving into the place of comfort. In this stressful world, we are so in need of comfort, and yet, the internal hardening that can occur in response to those stresses can make it as hard to receive comfort as it is to open to the pain of loss.
Traditional wisdom teaches that during this ten-week cycle leading into the High Holy Days, the haftarah portions, which usually to connect to their Torah portion, follow the movements of history, unrelated to the Torah portions they accompany. But in studying Mei HaShiloakh (a Hasidic commentator) on this week’s Torah portion with Rabbi SaraLeya, a connection between the parashah and the haftarah revealed itself. The parashah begins “V’etkhanan” (“And I implored...”). Mei HaShiloakh teaches that even in the face of the g’zerah, the decree that Moses would not cross over into the Land of Promise, the Holy One aroused Moses to continue to plead that he be allowed to enter the Land. He posits that this was to teach the people that Moses’ prayer would serve as a magen, a shield, for them, even after they crossed over into the Land without him. Further, one should not hold back from prayer, even when it seems there is no possibility of transforming the situation. The prayer itself—the pleading, the entreaty—serves to keep us in connection with the wHoly One.
In fact, the very word v’etkhanan hints at the key to transformation, for within it is the word khen, grace. In his book The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness, which the Gadel Hesed class has been studying all year, Rabbi Rami Shapiro defines “grace” as entering the heart of Shabbat-consciousness, putting down the baggage of our stories and engaging each day as it comes. Grace is living in harmony with the integrity of each moment, each action, trusting that what is given is enough, and so we expend all that we are and all that we have each day, trusting new energies to flow in.
Nekhemata, comfort, it seems to me, provides the strength, the faith, to make the transition from supplication to grace—or perhaps to hold both simultaneously. We plead for what we want even as we accept what we have, knowing that what comes to us is enough— “rav lakh, enough for you,” G-d says to Moses. Comfort supports us to engage differently with this moment, this day, so that something new, something fresh might become possible in days to come….mashiakh, a new consciousness, a new world.
During these days and weeks leading us into the transformative vortex of the Days of Awe, may we each be blessed to deeply know, to experience, to receive, and to offer nekhemata, comfort, so that together we might dance, grace-fully, into the New Year.