Observing Tisha B'Av: Finding Meaning as a Reform Jew
My first summer at URJ Camp Harlam I was given the task of leading a service for Tisha B'Av. I grabbed a Gates of Prayer out of the camp sifriyah (library) and simply followed its lead. I had trouble relating in my heart to the ninth of Av as one of sorrow and destitute, even though I knew at a cognitive level that Tisha B'Av marked the destruction of The Temples which once stood in Jerusalem. For me, the Kotel (also referred to as the Western Wall, the only remaining wall from the once mighty and majestic Temple built by King Solomon) was a place that I did not feel comfortable at. With men and women divided into separate sides for prayer at the Kotel, and women denied the right to read Torah or worship as a united group, I relegated this day of grief and mourning to the more traditional sects of Judaism.
As a Reform Jew, was I not happy with the development of modern-day Judaism? I certainly had no desire to focus on an old form of Judaism based on a hierarchal, priestly system of animal sacrifice. We Jews had thrived in the Diaspora, having spread our newly created customs throughout a myriad of communities and countries over the past 2,000 years. The Jewish People had truly flourished in spite of our exile from our Holy Land.
With so much emphasis on The Temple, I did not readily think about the pain of our people as first the Babylonians (in 586 BCE) and then the Romans (in 70 CE) stole something that was most precious and real. I have come to realize that the primary emphasis on the destruction of The Temples eclipses where the real focus should be; on the People. Therefore, I try to put myself in the shoes of my ancestors living in eretz Yisrael all those years ago when the skies turned black and their future burned to the ground. The loss of a home and a sense of security. Families forced to leave a familiar place; a place where memories had been made. A child birthed or buried. A baby's first step. First love and a kiss, sealed under the shade of an olive tree. Hopes and secrets suspended. A future never to be had. A belief in goodness and innocence consumed in the flames.
The prophet, Jeremiah, penned Psalm 137, capturing his pain in the line "by the waters of Babylon, we lay down and wept for Thee Zion". I challenge each of us to remember a time in our lives when we were leveled by something painful; where we wept in grief, mourned for something precious, wanting to throw ourselves on the ground in despair.
Every summer I now take Tisha B'Av very seriously at camp and teach it to our Reform community. Yes - I do emphasize that a very beautiful Judaism developed because of our forced exile on Tisha B'Av. But even the more so, I teach about empathy and compassion, two middot (Jewish values) that I wish each and every one of our campers to know and live.