On Tuesday August 9th, the Jewish people observed Tisha B'av. In all honesty I’ve never been to a Tisha B’av service, and only have a brief understanding of what the holiday is all about. But I do know it is about mourning for the literal and metaphorical destruction that has been caused and looking forward to “olam ha’ba” the world to come.
So I’m gonna try to unpack this holiday a bit for myself and hopefully for you. Here goes….
In our lives: Each year my close friend sends a very personal message in the spirit of Tisha B’av on her own challenges that are acting destructively in her own life and reflects on how to turn these challenges into a positive light. Each year I’m able to learn about her current struggles and am pushed to see the world through her eyes and reflective process where she finds the good out of the bad and continues to strive towards building this positive energy.
As with Yom Kippur it is tradition to fast on Tisha B’av since you are consumed in a full day of prayer and mourning. Fasting reminds us of physical pain which to me represents the pain that our people have felt each time there was further tragedy on this historic day of tribulations.
Reflecting: For me, the destruction of the first and second temples and the expulsion of Jews from Spain and England all of which occurred on the 9th ofthe Jewish month of Av symbolize a greater feeling of homelessness. Here is a full list of the losses on Tisha B’av (the 9th of Av). Homelessness doesn’t necessarily have to mean without a physical home for prayer as it may have meant for the Jews in 586 and 516 B.C.E. it can mean many things. It can mean feeling alone, or left out from your family, or community. When we feel like we don’t fit in we may feel physically and spiritually homeless, or uncomfortable. Loss in our lives can create this feeling as well whether actually losing a home, a job, a parent, family member, or a friend we mourn that which we no longer have. Our home which once was is no longer and our morning consumes us.
Where to go from here: I think a good amount of reflection on our lives and the ways we interact with others allows us to grow spiritually. If we continue to live our lives without a healthy self-check and evaluation of where we are and where we are going we can wind up being very distant from even ourselves. Tisha B’av is about morning communal loss. But you can choose to bring that closer to home by evaluating the ways in which you have been destructive to your home, your family, your friends, your professional relationships. Are you working on building the new “metaphorical” temple or are you tearing down the walls around you? Where do you turn towards home? Do you feel homeless or at a loss for what once was? On Tisha B’av the Jewish community mourns with those who feel alone and defeated. But the next day we pick up and begin to hope again for the beit hamikadash (house of the holy).
“I think it's important to recognize that we can't just hope. We can't just have faith that mashiach will come. We have to be proactive. We must examine who we are, what we're doing, and what we need to do to be worthy and meritorious of the next step in our cycle.” Cindy Kaplan Tisha B’av thoughts 2010.
So whether you feel lonely or without a home, or whether you are grateful to have a life where you feel uniformly whole we each could gain something from reflecting on destruction and rebuilding within our lives. Don’t just mourn take steps towards repair, and then we truly will live in a holy world.
When we think about rituals, we often think about traditions that have been handed down over generations. However, this isn’t entirely true. All rituals were at some point brand-new and have caught on because they have brought meaning into the lives of those looking for a concrete way to mark the passage of time or an event in their lives.
There are common rituals in Judaism that we observe at lifecycle moments such as a bris (welcoming a male baby into the Jewish covenant), bar mitzvah (entering Jewish adulthood), wedding, and death. And then there are ceremonies that have developed over time. Many liberal movements began to incorporate similar ceremonies for women such as a brit bat (Hebrew naming ceremony) or a bat mitzvah. More recently, we’ve begun to see ceremonies which mark different challenges in our lives such as healing services or prayers for a new home.
As our religion evolves with our society we can question where there are moments in our lives that we can turn to ritual to find comfort in an occasion where we mourn or celebrate. Was there ever a moment in your life that you wished you knew what to do to either reflect or pray for what was happening? Those are times when a ritual may have been helpful. Rituals can act as something tangible to hold onto, like ritual objects, or serve as a way to come together around communal prayer in order to bring peace and significance to a certain moment.
As part of a new series on the Pursue blog, I will be examining the reinvention of rituals in our lives. How do we as young Jews either embrace traditions and/or start our own? Whether buying a new car, shifting into a new job, hearing of a natural disaster or experiencing a miscarriage, there are moments in our lives where we may not know where to turn and how to pray. For these times we can create meaningful rituals for ourselves which incorporate our own practices of Judaism with the reinvention of rituals.
Ritual #1: In honor of Memorial Day let’s examine how we honor and memorialize those we have lost in our lives, both the known members of our own communities and the unknown members of our global community. Judaism has several rituals when it comes to honoring the dead. We may choose to name a new child after those we have lost, or purchase a book plate, plaque, or seat in a synagogue we belong to. Those are all tangible items through which we can show our appreciation and memory for the lost individual in our lives. For an ongoing ritual, many people observe a Yartzeit or annual anniversary of the death by lighting a memorial candle and saying Kaddish in synagogue to show that we continue to be in mourning regardless of how much time has passed since our loss.
Memorial Day is often regarded as the start of summer rather than a meaningful national holiday. On a day where we rejoice in the extra day off from school or work and bask in the outdoors and at barbecues, how do we reflect on all of those who gave their lives for our country? How do we “memorialize” them? Both personally and communally we have losses in our lives that are greater than we realize and greater than the rituals we currently maintain for them.
I often find the easiest way to reinvent a ritual is to break it down first in order to discover what it is I’m marking. This way the ritual I create can be most meaningful to me for the particular occasion I’m observing. On a personal level, this July I will lead the graveside service for my uncle’s unveiling (one year Yartzeit) and will have to discover what it is that is meaningful to say for my particular family. On a communal level, this week I will reflect on the lives lost by American soldiers engaged in wars overseas and what I pray for their future.
Rabbi Ellen Lippmann of Kolot Chayeinu/Voices of Our Lives in Brooklyn led a workshop for CBST’s (Congregation Beit Simchat Torah) Transforming Beitecha Conference last month in which we discussed developing Jewish rituals. She taught the group a good technique to use to determine if rituals still apply to the needs of today’s Jews. You can use a formula to ask questions of what the ritual is about and then determine who it is for and who is being left out. This way when you look to re-invent a ritual you will have a clearer understanding of the initial goals.
Let’s break down Yartzeit and its meaning in our lives (you can do this for yourself with whatever ritual you want to break down):
Case #1 Yartzeit is defined as: annual memorial for loss of a loved one Who: the mourner observes a day of memory for the deceased What: a symbolic candle is lit Where: at home or in synagogue Kaddish is recited three times When: on the Hebrew date of death annually Why: to remember a loved one How: alone or communally candle is lit and prayers are said
Then take a moment to decide what your personal goal in observing a ritual may be, since this may decide how you observe the ritual. When I observe Yartzeits in my life I like to spend the day remembering what that person brought into my life and the positive memories that I still have of them. I also like to have tangible objects like pictures or clothing that remind me of them close by so I can find comfort in their continued presence in my life.
Does Memorial Day have a Jewish connection in your life? Why do we celebrate Memorial Day? What are rituals we can create to better understand our link as Jews and as Americans to this historic day of honor and memory?
This Memorial Day I invite you as American Jews to think about how those within your own community have honored our country. Maybe your father, grandfather, great-grandfather served in either World War II, Vietnam, or the Korean War. Maybe you know someone who is serving now, a friend or peer. What does this connection to people who fight for America mean to you? Whether they are close to you or not, whether you believe in our current wars or not, what does it mean to have people give their lives for your safety? And how do you show your appreciation and honor those who put their lives at risk by protecting and acting for a more just world? This year I will reach out to my peers who I know have served and express my gratitude as I continue to pray for peace. For me, ritual is finding meaning in and expressing my gratitude for the things I have and the people in my life. Other goals may be to read about or share stories with those who have fought as American soldiers or to attend an event that honors the men and women who fight today.
What actions will you take? And how will you remember those whom you personally have lost and whom our country has lost this year?
Where do we feel spiritual? Do we need rituals to feel spiritual? How do we physically or emotionally get to a place where our souls feel thoroughly nourished? Spirituality is individual and yet many may feel the ability to reach an inner peace when doing similar rituals or upon seeing similar sights. Unlike other religions Judaism doesn't have a specified place in which people travel towards on a journey, like the hajj towards Mecca for the Muslim faith. Nor does Judaism have a desirable mental state of achievement like complete "nirvana" for the Buddhist. There is no pilgrimage, or living person, that Jews feel hold their key to spirituality. Yet rituals exist that many Jews partake in and may feel helps them towards a collective feeling of holiness.
Our current world is constantly tuned in to our "gadgets"; computers, phones, and e-readers consume our days at work, home, or school. I find more people I know seem to be walking around in a daze or utterly dependent on their iPhone/iPad/ Blackberry for the latest media update. It becomes easy to forget what it is like to connect in person anymore, and even when we are in person the “gadget” has begun to take precedence! Spiritual connection either with ourselves or with others seems to be quickly becoming a thing of the past. Does anyone take the time anymore to sit and reflect? There is not necessarily a link between religion and spirituality, one does not need to be religious to be spiritual; you can have an innate sense of connectivity without participating in any religion. But, how do we expect to solve our own challenges anymore or find a way to see the bigger picture of our own lives if we are buried in updates of Jennifer Aniston’s new hairdo?
How do you highlight your values, and find meaning in your life? You may feel most in touch with your own and others spirits during meditation, or in a shared contemplative space, or even by engaging a friend or family member in deep conversation. It is all about reminding ourselves what is important to our well being so that we can prioritize what to make time for. Finding ways to be spiritual may help us figure out how to eliminate our stress, be present with nature, people, or our own thoughts. By allowing ourselves to be fully present we continue to strive towards our best selves. Try focusing on one thing fully, unitasking instead of multitasking. Reach out to those who may need to hear from you. Take comfort in the spaces around you. And allow the power of making time to change your outlook by allowing yourself the art of reflection. In other words: unplug and relax! You may find you learn more about the ways you do enjoy to spend your time then by losing all your time to updates which aren’t pertinent to your life and values. This week is national 'unplug' Shabbat. Join the challenge and take advantage of life before the cell phone. I unplug every week and find myself craving Shabbat every other day of the week. We live in a world where we are constantly accessible to work, school, and there is an expectation of an instant response. Imagine what making time for family and friends again would look like and how much your connections with others would strengthen.
From the Source:
Abraham Heshel, a famous Jewish philosopher argues in his famous book The Sabbath that Shabbat is a “sanctuary in time”. Meaning there is no specific physical place but rather for Jews the weekly gift of time allows us to find ourselves in a greater connected world, or Olam H’aba, the world to come. This past week the Torah portion Vayak'heil continues to talks about the creation of the mishkan/ or tabernacle. The tabernacle was a sanctuary which Jews built and prayed in after the exodus from Egypt. The past week’s piece of Torah talks about the elaborate process of engaging varying people’s skills, and finding extravagant fabrics to ordain their space with. Jewish law uses last week’s Torah portion to teach how to keep Shabbat by abstaining from the exact 39 activities that were done in the creation of the tabernacle. This is how we know the difference between work and rest, since work was used to build; our abstaining on Shabbat is equivocal with rest. While the tabernacle was constructed as a particularly holy place and adorned as such it now only remains in Jewish history. For Jews Shabbat is the holiest of spaces, or time. In this portion we not only see what a physical space should look like according to Jewish law but more importantly we are reminded of the covenant between G-d and the Jews to keep the Sabbath holy. Our time is precious and even if only for one day a week it should reflect our spiritual values so that we can feel fully present and whole. Think of how much more we could accomplish all week if we take the time to feel spiritually nourished!
This week the Torah talks about all of the commandments that the Jews receive from G-d at Mount Sinai. So this week I am choosing to reflect on why keeping Shabbat is one of the ten commandments and what this means for how we live our lives in the 21st century.
“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of your God: you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. For in six days Adonai made heaven and earth and sea—and all that is in them—and then rested on the seventh day; therefore Adonai blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.” (Exodus 20:8-13)
Shabbat is declared as a day that shall be kept holy. The story of Bereshit (creation) is referenced in the commandment to show that God was able to construct the entire world in six days. Then on the seventh day he rested signifying the “rest” to be as important as the previous days of work. Why is it that having one day a week is so important to God? How is it that we often forget the importance of rest in our own lives?
Many people have tried to interpret, and re-interpret how Jews “keep Shabbat”. Every denomination within Judaism may have a different definition of work, and rest. It seems that people get lost in questions of what you can and cannot do on Shabbat. All are interpretations of Torah at different points throughout history. As new technology became available, Rabbis decided if the use of these advance divices qualified as work. They debated the use of light, computers, televisions, stoves, and heat. Another added layer is creation; since God didn’t “create” anything on Shabbat, those who observe Shabbat must cease from creation, or in Hebrew melakha.
Rather then a set list of rules, instead, shouldn’t the focus be what would make this day “holy”, as God has commanded us to do. What are times or environments in which we feel holy? Or spiritual? Are there activities that make us feel connected to the world around us as it is, instead of trying to change it? How can we just be in the world, at peace, whole, complete? Isn’t seeing how far we’ve come and how fruitful our work has been equally as important as doing the work itself?
I think Shabbat has the ability to mean something different for everyone. Just as the Rabbis have interpreted the torah and come up with halakha, or Jewish laws surrounding the practice of Shabbat, I think that individuals can interpret for themselves what would feel restful in their own lives. With the central thought being: since God is holy, and kept Shabbat, Shabbat is to be sanctified, and observing Shabbat in turn makes his people holy, and therefore closer to God.
For me, Shabbat is a day where I make space for reflection, rest, and community. When thinking about how keeping Shabbat as a reform Jew would be both manageable for me, while at the same time not isolating myself from friends and family, I choose to interpret the language of the Torah for myself. “You shall not do any work”, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy”. In this way I can create my own definitions of what feels like work, and what feels holy. When something new arises I try and decide whether it feels like work or rest, is the task something I enjoy, is creation involved, etc. In almost every possible task there can be room for debate. Transportation, money, light, hot water, cooking, and many more. Rabbis have spent time offering interpretations of text and creating laws of how Jews should approach tasks in order to be in compliance with observing Shabbat. Those who consider themselves to identify with a specific movement of Judaism may feel that their Shabbat observances be in tune with that of their movement, ie. Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, etc. I think the lessons we can draw from the actual text itself is much more significant then getting lost in the different halakah and it’s interpretations, where we may lose the goal of Shabbat all together.
The most important part is making Shabbat feel like a day that is separated from all other days of the week. Where the focus of the entire day is holiness, and presence with the world as it currently is. By eliminating work on Shabbat I never feel I have to be anywhere but where I am in that moment. Shabbat has had only a positive impact on my life thus far, I feel as if I’ve given myself the gift of time. When we are able to connect with each other, share holy space, and allow ourselves time in turn we remember what it is to be a holy people.
With all that we have available at our fingertips now, it is easy to forget the importance of spending time with our family, friends, and ourselves. Nowadays people are constantly connected to the larger world; we may forget what it is like to simply take in the world around us, by being outside, engaging in discussions, or reading something we enjoy. Instead we are constantly distracting ourselves from being fully present in our lives with gadgets and rushing from one thing to the next. Let Shabbat be a reminder to not just let the world pass you by but take time to remember what makes your world holy. Who are the people, and what are the things that you enjoy most? Are you making time for these people and things in your life? This upcoming Shabbat take a few hours to unplug, unwind and be present with people and the world without multitasking. Giving your full attention to something signifies that you find it important, why not devote your importance to the people/ things you care about? For those of you who celebrate Shabbat weekly, or once in awhile, what is the impact you feel it has on your life?
There has been a lot of recent talk about people being too connected to our appliances/ internet/ social media and substituting real interactions with our online interactions…