Friday, July 27, 2012

Turning your laments into prayer: thoughts -- and voices -- for the 9th of Av

The 9th of the month of Av -- Tisha B’Av -- is the most mournful day on the Jewish calendar. It marks a host of calamities for the Jewish people -- all of which are said to have occurred on the 9th of Av -- including the destruction of both the first and second great Temples in ancient Jerusalem. Yet it can be hard for the contemporary Jew to approach Tisha B’Av as a spiritually meaningful day of mourning. After all, Judaism as we know it -- rabbinic Judaism -- only emerged as a result of the loss of the Second Temple and the exile of the Jews from Jerusalem. And, as much as we might yearn deep in our souls for a messianic redemption where all the people of the world acknowledge our God as The One, few of us are interested in working practically for a rebuilding of the Temple and a reestablishment of the sacrificial cult with its bloody burning of offerings on the altar.

But -- in a lecture as part of the chaplaincy training program I’m teaching in this summer at the Jewish Theological Seminary -- Professor David Kraemer helped me see that Tisha B’Av is not just a day of mourning -- neither in contemporary nor in ancient times. Kraemer’s genius is to step back and look at the ritual practices in our tradition without all the overlays of meaning we have associated with them over the centuries. By looking at the practices afresh, we are able to get new insights into their meaning, he teaches us.

Regarding Tisha B’Av, Kraemer compared its core ritual practices -- like fasting and avoiding washing -- to the core ritual practices from two other key elements of the tradition: one that is clearly about mourning -- shiva (mourning practices after the death of a loved one) -- and one that is not so clearly about mourning -- Yom Kippur (or the Day of Atonement). From this comparison, it became clear that although Tisha B’Av is partially about mourning (as it shares practices like a ban on Torah study with shiva), iit also has practices -- like fasting -- that link it more closely to the themes of atonement.

That leaves us with the question of what the nature of atonement -- and its central practice of fasting -- really is about. I’m reminded of the Talmud’s entire tractate about fasting  when there is a drought (תענית/taanit). That bit of Talmud makes me think fasting is not just about atoning for sin, but also about praying for release and relief. In that sense, fasting is anything but a mournful act -- it is a hopeful act of prayer for better times. But, nonetheless, mournful lament is indeed also clearly part of Tisha B’Av. Perhaps the one is not possible without the other. That is, perhaps one must first lament -- to cry out in pain to God -- before one is ready to ask for release and relief.

I am reminded also of the incredible lessons of the work Minna has been doing writing  Songs of Laments with mental health patients and others. She shared some of this incredible work with some chaplaincy students from our program and others last Thursday. You can get a taste of it too! Just watch this video excerpting the highlights of the workshop she did. It was truly an incredible experience.

May your fast be easy, may your Tisha B’Av be meaningful . . .  and may it be the will of the Holy Blessed One that you should find your way through lament to be able to pray with hope.

And may your prayers be answered.

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