As we turn the calendar this weekend to the month of Av, the observance of Tisha B’Av (the “ninth of Av”) is upon us. This is a day of mourning, in which it is customary to fast, read the biblical Book of Lamentations, and reflect on the calamities that have befallen the Jewish people. The root of the observance is remembering the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem which, in the Jewish religious imagination, is one of the earliest major catastrophes.
It always falls in the summer, which seems like a cruel joke of the calendar–at a time of year that we are enjoying the outdoors and warmer weather, we are called back inside to focus on communal loss and grief. It is always especially interesting when Jewish summer camps confront the day, needing to stay true to their mission of developing a strong sense of Jewish engagement and connection at a place that is also based on fun and games.
This year rather than most it feels more difficult to get into the spirit of Tisha B’Av. I am finding it quite a joyful and relieving fact that the distribution of vaccines and the re-opening of society and community is happening at summer time. Here in Washington State, the onset of summer is generally a time that we shrug off nine months of rain and overcast skies to enjoy the beauty of nature and the bright, warm, burning orb of gas in the sky. To have that line up with the shrugging off of 15 months of isolation and withdrawal gives particular resonance to the season.
Of course, we know we are not completely out of the woods. Vaccination rates are slowing. Children under 12 still can’t get vaccinated. The Delta variant is spreading. We still need to be mindful and cautious with masking and handwashing and going out when we are not feeling well.
And at the same time we can balance that with hope that we are moving past this incredibly difficult chapter of our lives, even as we continue to deal with the echoes of it.
Which is why I am asking myself now, why do we need a day of collective grief when we have been engaged in collective grief for the past 15 months? Why do we need to remember the destruction of our communal institutions when we have witnessed that for the past year and half? I don’t need more grief right now, I want to focus on the hope and redemption that comes after a destructive act. I don’t want another day of turning inward and hunkering down, I want to be outside celebrating life and community.
Traumatic events persist, we know, and on Tisha B’Av we are meant to mourn not only the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem but also the fact that that event and others continue to impact us. At the same time, we know that what emerges from destruction can be better than what was. The Judaism that we know was only able to evolve because of the destruction of the Temple. And now we hope that new approaches to health care and the social safety net and racial and environmental justice and communal obligation will come from what we have specifically learned from and experienced during the pandemic.
Holidays are important; they provide a focus on issues and values and ideas that are essential to us as humans. And yet sometimes we are in the throes of something that we don’t need a holiday to remind us. Or, the holiday takes on new meaning because we are in the throes of something. (I anticipate the High Holidays this year will be a celebration of coming back together in addition to marking the new year and personal teshuvah [repentance] work.)
We know the grief from the pandemic continues. We know that the suffering continues. And now add to that survivor’s guilt. And the communal lack of control we all experienced. And the uncertainty of what it means to “re-enter.” And the work it takes to build multi-access community. And the reexamination of social norms and expectations.
I know this won’t be every year, but this year I may take a break from Tisha B’Av. For what will truly be restorative, what will remind me of the our communal grief and loss, is not a day of fasting and lamentations, but another day in the sun, celebrating life, safely going maskless, and noting the fact that while yes traumatic events happen, they also end and we also heal.