How Brokenness Can Turn to Healing
I was recently asked by a member of our community to explain the connection between, Tisha B’Av, the central day of mourning in the Jewish calendar, and anti-Black racism. The question arose out of curiosity about our film, 40 Days of Teshuva, which features a spiritual process of mourning the destruction of Black and Brown lives that culminated on Tisha B’Av last year and will be screened around the country this year as part of Tisha B’Av programming. The connection, while not historically raised up as part of the Tisha B’Av liturgy, is strong and meaningful.
First, some background on Tisha B’Av. This shabbat (July 10th) begins of the month of Av, which intensifies a period of mourning that started 13 days earlier on the 17th of Tammuz, that traditionally includes no laundering, bathing for pleasure, haircuts, weddings and other activities that are especially joyful. The period culminates on the 9th day of the month, Tisha B’Av, with a full 25 hour fast that commemorates the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem and memorializes the suffering of Jewish communities throughout history. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (d. 1993, U.S.) describes this period as an inverse of Jewish mourning rituals that transition from more to less intense as time passes from the moment of the loss of a loved one. This process of national mourning grows increasingly intense, culminating with the full day fast and reading of Lamentations and liturgical poetry describing anti-Jewish violence ranging from Roman persecution to the Crusades to the Holocaust.
The purpose of creation is to know how close and connected we are to the Creator and to sense this closeness within all creation.
Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe (d. 2005, Israel) places Tisha B’Av in a spiritual paradigm of closeness and distance. The purpose of creation is to know how close and connected we are to the Creator and to sense this closeness within all creation. The Temple in Jerusalem was a site where this closeness was manifest on a regular basis. It is the loss of this lived experience of closeness with the Divine, the related embodied knowledge of the interconnection of all creation, and the sovereignty needed to curate such an experience, that underlies the mourning of Tisha B’Av. Rav Wolbe explains that the spiritual task of this period is to actually feel the pain of this loss, because brokenness prepares the heart for the reflection and joy that is to come seven weeks later with the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur.
The traditional Tisha B’Av liturgy guides us to access this pain by relating to Jewish suffering throughout the millennia. With the current rise in anti-Jewish violence around the world, including in my hometown of Boston, this suffering is unfortunately easier to access than in past years. What is the connection between this spiritual task of accessing brokenness and anti-Black racism?
The 40 Days of Teshuva film uplifts the voices of Black Jews as they lament the fear, abuse and degradation they experience in daily life simply due to the color of their skin. The suffering described is one more consequence of living in a world without a direct felt sense of closeness with God and the interconnection of all creation. If Jews have been targeted over millenia for our testimony to the Oneness of creation and our refusal to assimilate, anti-Black racism is one of the most egregious violations of that principle of Oneness and the essential dignity of all humanity. Due to the intensity and pervasiveness of anti-Black racism, in particular in the U.S., inclusion of Black Jews’ experience of their particular mistreatment in the Tisha B’Av liturgy makes a lot of sense. In addition, racism hurts everyone by keeping us all separate from one another and reinforcing the lies of superiority based on the superficiality of skin color. The fast of Tisha B’Av is supposed to motivate reflection and teshuva. Uplifting anti-Black racism gives Jews not targeted directly by this racism a valuable opportunity to do Teshuva on this part of reality where they collude with the lie of separation and distance, while giving Jews targeted by racism an equally valuable opportunity to mourn and be witnessed in their mourning. I see this spiritual work as part of a larger tikkun on returning to right relationship with the Creator and the felt reality of interconnection that the traditional liturgy mourns was lost with the destruction of the Temple and exile from the land.
I invite you to join us at 1:00 PM Eastern on Tisha B’Av day to mourn and do teshuva together. Whatever you do over the next nine days, may this be a time where the felt experience of brokenness yields to the joy of growth, healing and connection.