Tisha b’Av and Tu b’Av: From Death to Love
Rabbi Tal Sessler is senior rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel. He is the author of several books dealing with philosophy and contemporary Jewish identity.
On Saturday, May 21st, we will be camping out at the Makom behind TNS for Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of counting from Passover to Shavuot. While this tradition started as a mourning ritual, it has become a pilgrimage event in Israel and a cultural moment for many Jews in the diaspora. Let’s take a moment to explain, deconstruct and reconstruct our notion of the day.
The Talmud (Yevamot) mentions a plague that fell on the students of Rabbi Akiva during the Roman era. This may be a reference to the Bar Kochba revolt or simply a time of mourning for Jews after the destruction of the Temple. The plague was miraculously lifted on the 33rd day of the omer, so weddings and celebrations were allowed on that day. Later, a mystical tradition linked Shimon Bar Yochai’s death to the 33rd day of the omer and his skill as an archer and scholar are celebrated on this day to commemorate his passion and learning.
This day marks multiple layers of history, Theology and culture. 33 days of 49 mark a pivot towards revelation. With a little more than two weeks before Shavuot, the festival allows us to sit under the stars and before the bonfire and ask how far we have come since Passover. As a marker of a personal journey we must face what spring has sprung and our role in changing the course of our own destiny; revelation looks different when we prepare ourselves from the first moment of Passover. Will we admit to the limits of our ego, our shells readily accepting the new normal, our inability to count up towards a moment of radical amazement? Or will we just count the 33rd day like any other day, week or month, just another variant on a theme of decline, a failure of imagination. Or, like Shimon Bar Yochai, will we burst through with new life, ancient connections and cosmic meanings that burn with intensity! I know what I am counting on…
Bar Yochai was almost lethal in his wisdom and power with stories about his looks that could literally kill. It took time for him to recalibrate his passion towards the world. We too are in a moment of intensity, after a long period of isolation we are reemerging. Last year several students were killed at Mount Meron in Israel celebrating this day, crushed by the passion of those committed to Torah without regard for safety or crowd control. We may find ourselves staring at the bonfire with that same intensity, passion and fire; but we must learn to share and moderate that passion into a commitment for love of just Torah, Israel and humanity. If our celebrations become a war cry, we are no better than the Israelites worshiping molten bull.
This past Sunday we held a religious school Mock Seder. It was exhilarating to sing the classics, ask the questions, and watch our children repeat the story of Exodus. Of course we had the hunt for the Afikomen, which symbolizes the end of the feast and the beginning of our journey as satisfied, free Israelites.
Just before the Seder we acted out bedikat hametz, with a candle and feather to wipe away the extraneous fluff from our homes. The spring cleaning ritual is also symbolic of our spirit, a time to let go of residual effects of trauma and experiences that enslave the spirit and thwart renewal.
I find these two rituals, bedikat hametz and Afikomen, bookend this season of liberation. Without a sense of what needs to be expunged, both physically in our homes and spiritually in our hearts, we cannot expect to magically taste matzah and maror and sing Hallelujah. There is work to be done, both the avodah (work/holy service) of preparing the home for the spirit but also iterating the vision of next year in Jerusalem on high, an ideal state, to be realized next year.
The Afikomen, an inversion of the historical Greek practice of moving from house to house in search of more to consume, is an end to the search. It is instead taking pleasure and satisfaction in what we have. Liberty is freedom from want. To eat and be satisfied, with the poor and the stranger at our table, is as important as the mitzvah of four glasses of wine and dipping twice. To say Dayenu, it is enough for us, and mean it, is more than a song; it is a prayer.
Next Wednesday we will celebrate Purim with Costumes and Hamantaschen, but the true gift of Purim is the Megillah and our Speil. The rabbis and folklore applaud the Speil (some schpiel others spiel) as a form of subversion within our tradition. Watching our children adorn the masks of Mordechai and Haman is more than just cute; we teach to make fun of tradition just within the rules is very traditional. Like the child who cranks the grogger one more turn after being asked to stop. On this night, she is a master of unceremoniousness.
How else can we take a political story of politics, war, and genocide and wrap it in a spa week, beauty pagaent and parade? It’s all fun and games until it isn’t. The original plays of Eastern Europe were both PG14 and very polemic. Using the form of tradition to challenge power is the story of Esther. Watching our children make fun of themselves within our shul teaches that divinity is not only somber reflection but sharp and challenging with a wink to the knowing that it is not all fun and games.
I write this as my Great grandmother’s birthplace, Odessa, is being waged against by a tyrant and former mid-level spy who would be king. Putin is not funny. Criticizing and mocking his self proclaimed ubiquitous power can be. Zelensky, Ukrainian Jewish prime minister and former TV President and clown, has become a real time hero forged in the crucible of prime time soaps and social media. But make no mistake: he is no joke. Like Mordechai, he has seized the moment and carries the flag with honor. His leadership will never be forgotten and is now the prince in blue and gold.
The other lesson of our Purim is the mandate to read the ganza megillah, the whole scroll. Religiously, we do read all 10 chapters, from beginning to end, making sure we can hear and take in the lessons of this tale of mystery, statecraft and power. But I also read the commandment to read the ganza megillah as a mandate to not stop the story too soon, not after Esther wins the pageant (objectified), not only Mordechai refuses to bow (Moses redux) and leads the parade (pomp), not after the genocidal decree nor our retaliation.
The difference between a comedy or tragedy is only the ending. This story is not over. Our story is not over. We determine the finish and our children will be the authors. I don’t know the outcome, but I know the ingredients: warmth, humor, depth and a love of our people and our humanity. We are still mid-scroll… Hag Purim Sameach!
Mi Shenichnas B’Adar Marbeh B’Simha
Whoever Enters Adar will Increase in Joy
Happy Post Groundhog Day! As we move from the depth of Winter to the beginning of Spring, our Calendar teases us into character formation: Enter the future and increase your capacity for happiness!
In our tradition Happiness is not an emotion or a “feeling” it is a state of being. Happiness is a mitzvah, a point of connection. As R. Nahman dictates: it is a great mitzvah to aspire for joy consistently. So happiness is an optimal goal I will never and always achieve. Happiness is the capacity for joy. When I aspire to bring joy in my life, the proactive smile creates the warmth of laughter.
I write this in our first month of Adar, because this year our Hebrew Calendar has two Adars to realign the lunar and solar clocks to our rhythm. In a few weeks we will have Purim Katan, a “mini Purim” that marks the day if we only had one. In a sense, we have Groundhog Month!
Which brings me back to the one who enters Adar. We are invited to relive a month of late winter to repeat our limited loops of ambition and disappointment or increase our capacity to see light in darkness. We have two times to ask how my being increases potential for joy or if we see another month as an extension of more of the same. It is a choice to enter the month Adar. the Calendar does not happen to you; you create the times of your life.
So let us use these months to increase our well being, to believe in a warmer future, to invite ourselves to a better future. Adar II at the full moon will be Purim Gadol, not a carnival rehearsal but life fully lived as a cabaret.
Happy secular new year! It is so nice to have this season separate from Hanukkah, and to look at the next holiday of Tu B’Shevat as a corollary to this season. In fact, our Birthday for the trees is the opposite of the Celtic tradition of the evergreen tree (or the artificial one invented by Si Spiegel): our trees look barren in winter, but it is the first sign of a bud that marks the beginning of renewal. Not full-blown, not merry happy, but a fledgling sapling ready to blossom in the spring.
I pondered this contrast last Shabbat as we had 5 for services and could not say Kaddish. If Kaddish is said at shul, and no one is there to hear it, does it get an Amen? Well, the answer is yes and no. Any prayer is a call to the One and all, and any prayer, even one that requires a quorum like Kaddish, has a resonance for the prayer giver. For those in mourning who have found themselves in front of a tombstone, or on the highway, or even on vacation in a foreign destination, the murmured words of the kaddish bring tradition and healing to the ones that offer it in any form or place. While rabbinically proscribed to ensure people show up for one another and the sacred right of minyan, a gathering of 10, I will never forbid an individual or small family from declaring God makes peace in the heavens and for all on earth. I have been a witness many times to a group of nine that asks if we can use a child holding a Torah, or some other calculus, to create the sacred quorum.
However, it does not get an Amen, in the literal sense. We cannot claim as individuals the power to ratify God’s formula of grief. Amen is so much more than a “Yes!”, it is a sign of ratification and a communal answer to the question “who will remember me when I am gone?” The answer is Judaism, made up of Jews you may not know or were even born (or Jewish) when you were alive. Kaddish in a group of 10 offers more than comfort and interpersonal support. It is a satellite of consistency, a gauge of community, and a barometer of Jewish health. Contrary to minyan becoming a cult of grief and a place of lament, kaddish and its necessity for minyan insists that life is for the living, and a primary way we show our love of divinity is the support of humanity.
During COVID TNS has used online, in-person and hybrid models to ensure this right is not lost or forgotten. None should be put at risk to ensure we see and hear one another. We have the technology and power to make minyan in these uncertain times. As we navigate the law of the land and the Law of Torah, let us be the best of Conservative Judaism, combining our tradition and innovation to keep the chain of generations vital, la dor va dor.
We are blessed to have a committed group that will show up rain or shine. This is our trunk, our tree of life. For those of us who are perhaps one rung away from this commitment, more a branch on this tree, or perhaps further out, like a potential bud at the tip of tomorrow, happy birthday to us! We all have an opportunity to ensure minyan, online and in person, by turning on our phones to make sure there is 10 for Kaddish each Friday evening. It’s ok to sign off if we have the numbers. It's alright to come to shul only to leave once we are sure amen will be declared. Put it in your calendar. It’s Shabbat. Friday at 6:15. Who knows, your Amen may make the difference in a soul, past, present, and future.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
An international religious leader, philosopher, award-winning author and respected moral voice, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was awarded the 2016 Templeton Prize in recognition of his “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” Described by H.R.H. The Prince of Wales as “a light unto this nation” and by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as “an intellectual giant”, Rabbi Sacks was a frequent and sought-after contributor to radio, television and the press both in Britain and around the world.
Rabbi Micah Hyman
Rabbi Micah Hyman has returned to SLO county after five years around California. He has served pulpits in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Paris. Rabbi Hyman has also been an innovator in experiential education, serving the Jewish Museum in New York, the Spertus Institute in Chicago, and ANU: The Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv. He enjoys SLO living in all its Nature and Culture, smoking lox, on the water, and hiking with his sons Nathan and Theo.