I Don’t Want to Observe Tisha B’Av This Year

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.

Swinging Across the Jordan

I didn’t post last week because I was away at summer camp. Each summer for the past few years I have spent a week as a faculty member at URJ Camp Kalsman, a Jewish summer camp in Arlington, WA. I spend my week leading services, tutoring for b’nai mitzvah, teaching Torah, hosting a reception for the counselors and overall spending time with campers (some from my congregation) and staff.

It is also a bit of a retreat week for me as I get to spend the week away from home and work with nice accommodations, three meals a day and a beautiful setting up north. I use some of my down time to relax, but also do to preparation work—think about the High Holidays, do some planning for the year ahead, and read and study.

Getting outside is also part of the camp experience, of course. The camp sits on a lot of land, so I had occasion to hike around the camp lake, and into the woods in search of a waterfall. The former was easy, the latter was a bit of an adventure into the woods on a poorly marked trail, but my friend and fellow faculty member and I forged ahead and found it.

Leaving camp is also an option (as an adult its possible to leave camp, but it still feels weird in any event—if you have been to overnight camp you understand what I mean). I do usually leave camp once or twice—there is a nearby spot that I like to visit when I am at camp, a swimming hole on the south fork of the Stillaguamish River.

The swimming hole is off of Jordan Road, and I thought it was funny that there is a Jordan Road near a Jewish camp, especially as the weekly Torah reading cycle during mid- to late-summer brings us to Deuteronomy, when the Israelites are camped out on the eastern side of the Jordan River preparing to enter into the Promised Land. After their forty years of wandering, the Israelites are ready to move forward, but not before Moses gives one last speech. The Book of Deuteronomy is essentially this speech: part retelling of the journey, part review of the laws, part pep talk, part admonition for good behavior.

If you have been to Israel you know the Jordan River is not that impressive. It is a surprising modest body of water. The Stillaguamish off Jordan Road near Arlington is more impressive. The swimming hole I go to is at a slow part of the river, the rocky and sandy riverbed serves as a nice beach, and the water is deep, calm and cool.

There is a rope swing there, and while I was there this past week a bunch of kids had commandeered the rope. They took turns jumping off into the water. One girl was excited to try for the first time, but noticeably nervous. Her friends and her parents were there watching. Her father coached her on the proper technique—to wait until the rope is at its farthest point and then let go, he even said he would tell her when to let go. She was hesitant and stood there for quite a while as her parents and friends coaxed her on.

It was a tense moment, and I watched with interest. It was a moment that I felt in my gut— I thought back to times when I was in the situation of that girl, coaxed on to do something risky and scary, how nervous I was, and the feeling of internal and external pressure. And I felt it as a father, I understand those times when you are sensitive to pressuring your kids too much to do something they don’t want to do, while at the same time wanting to encourage your kids to stretch themselves and try something new.

Moses’s speech to the Israelites is in that same vein: coaxing them to do something risky, something nervewracking, all the while knowing that while it will be scary, it is a necessary step into the unknown that will allow the Israelites to grow as a people. Two rivers, two leaps forward.

The girl swung, and the look of joy, relief and accomplishment on her face when she came out of the water was electric. She swam over to her father and gave him a big bear hug. Her fears overcome, her goal accomplished, she offered appreciation to one who had shown her love and support at her leap.

In that moment I realized that we are all in that position at times, that of the Israelites or the girl on the swing: while we naturally want to be cautious, we know that ultimately without risk, without swallowing our nerves and taking a leap forward, we are not going to know what we are truly capable of.