A Teaching for Tisha B’Av – Moving from How to What now?
By Jason Mann MD, Mph Senior Rabbinic Student
Aleph Ordination Program
One of the most useful ways I have found to uncover the hidden wisdom in the Torah parsha is to begin by looking closely at the very first word in the text, as these first words have been placed as a divine invitation or a doorway into the meaning of the text.
On Tisha B’av we read from the Book of Lamentations. The Book of Lamentations starts with the word “Eicha” which in Hebrew means “how?” This is a very appropriate word to begin a text that is read on Tisha b’Av as Tisha b’Av is a time in our calendar when we mourn many tragedies in Jewish history – Temple destructions, massacres, plagues and expulsions. The word “how” is a perfect opening word for this text for when terrible things occur in our lives our first reaction to the situation is to ask ourselves “how could this have happened?” So, it is no surprise that the Book of Lamentations beings with the Hebrew word “how,” which in Hebrew also gives the scroll its Hebrew name.
We ask ourselves, “how did this tragedy happen?” because this is one of the ways we imagine that we can prevent disaster from occurring again. Unfortunately, the answers we find to the question of “how,” are often unsatisfactory because the world is very complex and no matter how hard we try to understand the etiology of events as a means of protecting ourselves from tragedy, we find that there is always something that is beyond our grasp. There is always some random factor that is beyond our understanding or control.
Perhaps a better question to ask after a tragedy takes place is, “what now? What now?” What shall I do next to help me recover from the tragedy and create meaning out of what has happened? There is no perfect answer to this question either, but one response after a tragedy has occurred is to engage in a spiritual practice.
Many people who are trying to recover from a tragedy have found that engaging in a spiritual practice can bring comfort and peace. Spiritual practices persist and flourish in our very secular world because they help us understand that we are not in complete control of our world or our lives. We are each one small piece of a vast and complex world that is beyond our ability to understand and control.
When we begin to seriously engage in a spiritual practice the question “how?” or “why?” something has happened no longer freezes or occupies all of our energies or thoughts. We are able to let go and encounter a vastness that is beyond our comprehension. In moments of meditation, prayer, or walking in nature we can move beyond pain and confusion and discover that within the vastness is a loving energy of the universe some of us call God.
A lesson in my life about all loving relationships is that love can be so sweet, but at other times it is tough love. Of course I give my grandson kisses and hugs, but I also grab his arm and forcefully pull him back to the sidewalk when he runs into the street. Whether it is a kiss or a pull on the arm, everything that I give to my grandson is coming from a place of love. This is the loving energy God provides the world, a loving energy that is present both in the good times and the difficult ones.
In my lifelong career as an oncologist, and now as chaplain and a soon-to-be-rabbi, I have been present for much sorrow, loss and pain. When tragedy befalls us we sometimes withdraw from our relationships, our community, and from God. Sometimes we pull back from the very practices and companionships that can support us. But even when the path is tough, we can find love there.
Perhaps this is one lesson we can take from Tisha b’Av, a time of tragedy and sorrow. God’s love is everlasting and enduring. New possibilities emerge even from tragedy. If we ask ourselves, “ what now?”
The penultimate phrase in the Book of Lamentations gives us additional guidance as to “what now?” We read, “khadesh yameinu k’kedem, often translated “renew our days as times of old.” However, kedem is also the East where the sun rises, and “kadima” means “go forward!”
These words are a reminder of how important it is to renew our loving relationships with each other and with God after a tragedy has befallen us, and find our way forward.
So my hope for all of us is that as T’shav b’Av ends, we are strengthened and prepared to move to what is next and renew our Love with each other and with God as it was and will be, in the best days of our lives.
Kein Yehi Ratzon
Jason Mann is a Physician and a Senior Rabbinic Student in the Aleph Rabbinic Ordination Program. Since ending his medical practice he has worked as a spiritual care provider and as an educator exploring the connections between spirituality and medicine.