Living in a Long Tisha B’Av Moment — Tisha B’Av 5778

I’m going to come at this the long way around.

I spent last weekend — really, not even 36 hours, including an overnight stay at a hotel — in Philadelphia at a training on organizing and activism that Bend the Arc Jewish Action conducted. Some of the training was a little duplicative of things I had encountered or learned elsewhere; some of the training deepened my ability to do things I already knew about, or expanded my thinking on things. I met people — even people who live here in the D.C. area — whom I might not otherwise have met.

And we talked about Tisha B’Av.

We sort of understand Passover as quintessentially tied to the idea of refugees and journeys to freedom. In some respects, Tisha B’Av is the dark mirror of that.

The basic story we tell on Tisha B’Av is of the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, and of the exiles produced by those events. Tisha B’Av has also become a holiday of Jewish mourning: a series of Jewish tragedies have been associated with the day (and the expulsion from Spain in 1492 was actually decreed on Tisha B’Av). The entire day is connected to expulsion and uprootedness: regular patterns of practice are disrupted, and in many communities the order of the liturgy itself is essentially turned upside down.

So, how did we talk about Tisha B’Av at the Bend the Arc training? In much the same way as a lot of American Jews concerned with the recent immigration and refugee crisis have begun to understand Tisha B’Av: as a holiday that ties tightly to the refugee experience, not as celebration of freedom, but as a moment that reminds Jews of their past travails and how our historical experiences are similar to those who are now displaced.

This prompted me to think about what we “do” with Tisha B’Av — not only how we connect its history to our present experiences, but how we understand the way the stories should go.

There’s a story that we can tell ourselves that put Tisha B’Av and Passover together. That when you’re forced from home, you can still “get free.”

What if you can’t permanently “get free”? What if there’s no real end to this story?

What if we’re always in a Tisha B’Av moment?

That sounds pretty pessimistic, doesn’t it? (Please see my Rosh Hashanah sermon from 2017, where I admit to a pretty thoroughgoing strain of pessimism in my personality.) And maybe it is. (Okay, it definitely is.) But if we view what we do as getting free and that’s it, then we’re not learning as full a lesson as we might.

The Jewish year is cyclical, with Tisha B’Av falling toward the end of the calendar. Looking at the Jewish calendar as a whole, we actually start and end the year in some form of mourning: the year begins at Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Days of Awe, and ends with the month of Elul, which traditionally marks the beginning of a period of introspection leading up to Rosh Hashanah. The middle of the year is marked by a series of months in which celebratory holidays come one after the other: Hanukkah, Tu B’shvat, Purim, and Passover come in relatively rapid succession. Even Shavuot is a kind of triumph, coming as it does at the end of a period of semi-mourning. Then, a pause — and then Tisha B’Av, a recurring memory of total destruction that comes less than a month before we start the end-of-year period of reflection and preparation for Rosh Hashanah.

There’s something important for us to learn here, I think.

The fight doesn’t end. No matter how radically transformative our politics, no matter how much we accomplish, there will always be more to do. The world isn’t perfect, of course, and so there’s always going to be a gap between what we want and what there is.

But there’s also always the problem of reaction. In an imperfect world, political change has the effect of changing individuals’ and institutions’ relative positions — both perceived and actual.

We have to bend the long arc of history ourselves — whether you think that’s because there’s no one else to do it, or because, in line with process/partnership/covenantal/whatever theology, you think that there’s something “out there” that needs us to handle most of the bending for it. (And for what it’s worth, that’s the basic premise of Bend the Arc’s work: that we have to do the bending. Also, to be sure, there’s a teleological point inherent in the adoption of bending the arc as terminology, and it’s one I don’t fully share.)

But if Passover suggests the arc bends toward justice, it’s also true that we will have to keep bending it, and that means sometimes the arc will slap back into its former shape. There’s always someone who thinks, correctly or not, that they must inevitably and irretrievably lose when we act — that justice for some necessarily requires injustice for other.

The arc doesn’t stay bent; forces of reaction bend it back, or we stop bending and it slowly returns to its prior shape. Whether this is the way we want our story to go, it is, in reality, how our story does go.

Year after year, the triumph of Passover’s getting free rolls to the disgraces of Tisha B’Av. We go back and forth during the year between tragedy and triumph.

Working to assure a more just world, it seems to me, is similar. Progress isn’t always permanent, and it certainly isn’t guaranteed; our temples of justice and fairness and peace, once built, can be destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again.

The question before us is how in this long, sustained, Tisha B’Av moment, with our temples destroyed, you will help us to rebuild.

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