Blog: August 2003

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Friday's sermon

I gave the d'var torah on Friday at my Reform synagogue. My rabbi specifically asked me to talk about Tisha b'Av and to promote the service we're having for that holiday next week. (This is our first itme doing this.) It's kind of a challenging subject.

Tonight we began to read the book of Devarim, Moshe's last address to the people before they enter the promised land and he dies. Moshe has just transferred leadership to Yehoshua, who will lead the people into the land. It's a necessary transition: in order for this nation to go forward, Moshe has to die and others have to take over. The people, too, must undergo a transition, from wandering in the wilderness to cultivating the land. Transitions aren't always happy events, but they are necessary if our people are to flourish for thousands of years to follow.

I'll get back to transitions in a bit. First I want to talk about our scriptures beyond tonight's reading.

Each Friday night and Saturday morning we read from the Torah. On Saturdays we add haftarah, readings from the Prophets. Torah and Prophets are two of the three sections of our scripture, the Tanakh. The third section is an eclectic collection of writings, Ketuvim.

The writings include five special books, called megillot. Four of them are familiar to most of us. We read the joyous Song of Songs at Pesach in the spring. At Shavuot we read the Book of Ruth, the story of a convert to Judaism who later becomes the grandmother of King David. In the fall, at Sukkot, we read the somber words of Ecclesiastes. And at Purim, we read about Haman's plot against the Jews in the Book of Esther.

The fifth megillah is the Book of Lamentations. Written after the destruction of the temple, it resembles the prophetic readings of the past few weeks. The people have sinned and abandoned God, and so we were cast out of Jerusalem and the temple was destroyed. The book provides strong images of a people gone wrong. While the text is sometimes beautifully crafted, the message is unsettling. Some commenters seeking comfort in all of this point out that God turned his wrath against a building, the temple, rather than against the people, which is perhaps a small comfort. We have seen what God's wrath can do when directed at people, after all.

Why am I telling you all of this? Have I suddenly developed an affinity for neglected books of the bible?

Not this time. The Book of Lamentations has a place in the annual cycle of readings, along with Song of Songs and Ruth and the rest. That time is Tisha b'Av, which is next week.

According to tradition, Tisha b'Av is the day that both temples were destroyed. These were devestating events for our ancestors. The prophets, and the book of Lamentations, describe the national tragedy. But we are also told to move on from mourning.

The Talmud tells us of a Rabbi Joshua who berated his fellow Jews for excessive mourning. These Jews had sworn to give up meat and wine because, they said, how could they eat meat when it could no longer be brought to the temple first? Rabbi Joshua agreed with this reasoning, but pointed out that they would also have to give up bread because of the meal offerings. When they agreed to this he said they would also have to give up fruit, because of the offering of first fruits. Eventually he had convinced them that they would have to give up even water, and they relented. His message was clear: mourning is necessary, but excessive mourning is inappropriate.

Many of us are uncomfortable with mourning for the temple, because we see it as being tied to an eventual third temple. But as Rabbi Joshua teaches, there can be life beyond the temple. We can observe the day without necessarily wanting to rebuild. Other interpretations are possible.

The destruction of the temple forced our ancestors to develop Judaism in new ways. We pray from this siddur today because we needed something to replace the sacrificial system. The Rambam, Maimonides, said that this was always part of the plan -- that we were meant to move from burnt offerings to prayer and then, later, to philosophical contemplation. It seems to me that the destruction of the temple was every bit as necessary for our people as going to Egypt was. True, if we had never gone to Egypt we would not have been enslaved -- but we also would not have received the Torah after being freed from Egypt. Similarly, if the temple had not been destroyed we would still be bringing bulls to the altar, but we would not have developed prayer, either. While we certainly do not celebrate the destruction of the temple, we can note it as a necessary, significant event, and commemorate it on Tisha b'Av.

Other unfortuante events in our history have also fallen on Tisha b'Av. This is the day the spies rejected the promised land, condemning a generation to die in the desert. It's also the day the Bar Kochba rebellion against Roman rule was put down. And more recently, it is the day the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. On Tisha b'Av we remember our national setbacks, including but not limited to the loss of the temple.

The Book of Lamentations does not contain only lamentations; it also contains words of comfort: "God will not cast off for ever. For though he cause grief, yet will he have compassion. For he does not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men." The book ends with a petition: "Turn us unto You, O God, and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old."

In other words, we ask for God's help to return to God. This should sound familiar; we say the same things each year at Yom Kippur. The book of Lamentations is, in many ways, a national Yom Kippur -- a recounting of sins and the ill effects they have brought, and a plea to help us return to better ways. The message is positive: God will help us, when we are ready to return to God. Tisha b'Av, a mere seven weeks before Rosh Hashana, is a fine time to begin thinking about teshuva, returning to God.

We will be holding services for Tisha b'Av this year, on Wednesday night at [time]. Come join us as [rabbi] leads us in the special prayers for the day and in reflection on the larger themes. Join us as we transition from a period of mourning to a period of penitence leading up to the high holy days. The prophetic readings that have accused us for the last three weeks will comfort us for the next seven, until Rosh Hashana. Come for Tisha b'Av and you may find it easier to prepare for the high holy days. Or come out of curiosity about this little-known day in our calendar. If you can't come, try to set aside some time in the day for contemplation.

For those who want to do more, there are other observances associated with the day. If you want to know more about that, talk with me at the oneg or talk with our rabbis next week. We'll be happy to help. But you don't have to do everything; coming to the service is a good beginning.

Our ancestors transitioned from the desert to the land, and from Moshe to Yehoshua, and from burnt offerings to prayer. What transitions do we face in our own lives? What are we going to do about them?