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Tisha B’av

וְאִם לֹא תִשְׁמָעוּהָ בְּמִסְתָּרִים תִּבְכֶּה נַפְשִׁי מִפְּנֵי גֵוָה וְדָמֹעַ תִּדְמַע וְתֵרַד עֵינִי דִּמְעָה כִּי נִשְׁבָּה עֵדֶר ה’

And if you do not heed, my soul will cry in its hidden chambers… and if tears will flow freely, my eye will drip with tears, for the flock of Hashem will be captured.”

ירמיהו יג יז

As the Jewish year goes around each month exhibits another human emotion that is the result of the events of that particular period.  Imagine a colorful top that shows each intense and radiant color in turn.  Similarly, each period of the Jewish year carries its own vibration, each one serving the exalted purpose of coming close to Hashem through the entry points of the emotions of the soul.  When the revolution of one year is complete we keep moving just as the earth keeps turning on its axis, while the sands of time drop through the tiny orifice in the proverbial hourglass at its deceivingly slow yet steady pace.  Only in the new revolution, we rotate on a higher plane.

What is the beauty of Tammuz-Av and the three week period of mourning over the Bais Hamikdosh?  It is now the nine days, and if you sit very still and tap into your soul, you will feel the sadness.  Is there beauty in sadness?  Can one even say such a thing? Everything is a gift from G-d and an avenue to Him – how do we “do sadness” as He wants us to do now and through that achieve the important soul work of Tisha B’av?

What is the sadness that is in your soul, in that moment of stillness, when the constant music that is always playing now-a-days has stopped and the comfort and pleasure that comes from meat, wine, bubble baths and freshly laundered clothes comes to a halt?  When we have a chance to hear the crying – and inaudible, choking crying – coming from deep inside our soul?  Whose is it?  And how do we respond to those cries?

Listen, and you will hear it.  Take a moment now to pause and listen.  It is your own crying, the sadness within you, related to whatever difficulties and struggles, losses and disappointments you have personally experienced in your life.  It is also the cries of your loved ones, your family and your friends, that you carry in part for them as a gesture of love, easing their burden and sharing the inevitable sadness that is mixed into their souls.  Deeper still, it is the cries of your ancestors, the screams of the holocaust, and way before.  It is the cry of the collective Jewish soul that you are hearing within you throughout its long exile.  But deepest of all, it is the cry of the Shechina.

What is the cry – the pain – of the shechina? 

A few days ago, someone sent me a video clip from the holocaust.  I generally avoid exposing myself to the horrors of that time period as an attempt to protect myself from pain I cannot bear (perhaps, like many others, I was there). For a particular reason I decided to watch this clip.  There is one image that stands out in my mind which I will describe here.  A young boy, around the age of one of my own sons (l’havdil), had been starved nearly to death.  An unmistakable spunk and defiance to the Nazi regime was still glistening in his eyes.  I allowed my eyes to scan the ribs protruding from his torso and the bones that were what was left of his arms coming out of his shoulder sockets, thinly covered with skin.  Impossible to simply go on with what I was doing, I stopped and tapped into my pain.  “I’m sorry,” I found myself saying to this boy in the holocaust.  “I’m sorry.”  And then, an overwhelming feeling of “I’m sorry” for G-d came over me. 

This is so different from the normal question people ask about G-d and the holocaust, which is usually, “Where was He?” or  “How could He let it happen?”  As if He is some Being outside and separate from the Jewish people that was imposing something upon them.  The question, “Where was He?” doesn’t even hold water if you understand the concept of צער השכינה – the pain of the Shechina. When I was looking at that boy – which passed on the screen for a few seconds and lingered in my memory for longer – I was having a moment with the Shechina.  It of course surprised me as I wasn’t expecting it.

In another area of my work,  I have created English translations from the Hebrew work “Ohel Rachel”, a compendium of Torah sources regarding the three essential mitzvos of women.  The following is taken from the section on “Nidda” – understanding the deeper meaning of the period of separation between husband and wife before she immerses in a mikve and becomes permissible for her husband again.  The book brings verses from Eicha, Yirmiyahu and Ezekiel– the parts of Tanach that describe the atrocities of the destruction of the Temple.  A very peculiar simile is used to describe the state of the Jewish people at the time of the destruction. “כטומאת הנדה היתה דרכם” – “Like the impurity of a menstrual woman have their ways become”.  And in Eicha, “טומאתה בשוליה” – “her menstrual blood was on her hems [i.e. her sins were revealed and therefore Hashem had “left” her so to speak, in exile] ”.  This is a figurative description of the collective archetype of the Jewish people, compared to a woman who is estranged and exiled from the tender rapport that she enjoyed with her husband and the protection that that brings. What comes out of the pages of the Ohel Rachel is that Nidda is a reflection of the state of exile, and though it is painful its anguish is bittersweet, as it points to a future time when we will regain our purity and Hashem will return to us.  “בואי כלה, בואי כלה”, “come, my bride, come, my bride” – we say in Kabbalas Shabbos, and we allude to the time when the Shabbos of all Shabboses will come and we will be permanently reunited with Hashem, when, ” ומחה ד’ דמעה” – “Hashem will wipe away the tears from every face” and the sweetness of redemption will displace the pain of exile.

Sadness is not bad when it is appropriate.  It allows us to tune into an imperfect reality and to ground ourselves with where we are truly holding.  Authentic sadness creates a very solid foundation from which to build, in the sense that when the sadness is real, only through knowing it can we be in truth.  Emotional states are not meant to be felt forever – by definition they come and go, rise and fall like the waves in the sea, and turn round and round like a colorful top.  But if, because of our fear of pain we choose to deny their presence in our internal landscape, then we cannot be in touch the full spectrum of our inner experience. I believe that that is the gift – and the strange beauty – hiding in Tisha B’av.  It is hard work and it takes honesty.  But it creates the foundation for all of the introspection and homecoming that is to follow in the following month of Elul, “אני לדודי ודודי לי” – when the allegorical groom and allegorical bride can come back together in purity, and begin a new year, with its colors, vibrations, and opportunities for growth and joy.

I remember another time I felt this feeling of צער השכינה – pain of Shechina, pain of exile.  I was only able to access it through opening a door to my our own pain and then making the connection from there.  I had just arrived in South Africa, seventeen (!) years ago.  A family member invited me to a gala fundraising event with live entertainment, over a thousand people in the massive venue, and a real sports car positioned on stage as a prize for one of the promotions.  The room pulsed with the movement and sounds of a heaving mass of unaffiliated Jews.  Just a week before, I had been in Israel, in the Ezras Torah neighborhood of Jerusalem, surrounded by Jews who live with stark and frugal devotion to serving G-d in every nook and cranny of their lives.  The contrast was stark, and I remember standing at the door, looking on, comparing the spiritual intensity of Israel with the lack of awareness of the frivolous crowd, and felt it again.  “Ow.”  That must hurt G-d.  So many Jews, yet so far from Him.

The Gemora tells us that when Moshiach comes, Hashem will take us to the land of Israel “על כנפי נשרים” – “on eagles wings”.  Rashi wants to know, of what significance is it what kind of bird takes us there?  He brings the midrash that an eagle is unique among the birds in that it flies far higher than the other birds.  He does this to protect its young.  “If the arrows fly,” the eagle figures, “it will pierce my belly and my children will be safe”.  The way that Hashem is bringing us to Redemption is likewise on eagle’s wings, as if to say; “when you get hurt, I feel the arrows as if they are going into Me”.  He is telling us that He has been with us every step of the way – If not His revealed presence as expressed as His outward love and protection, then His hidden aspect, the Shechina, has been with us.

Still, we are left wondering, how can the Shechina feel our pain?  An eagle has a body with which to receive arrows from its attackers, but on the level of the allegory, G-d has no body, and we wonder if He even has emotions as we know them, as emotions are part of the human experience.  So what does it mean that the Shechina is in pain?

The mystical sources explain that the highest layers of the Jewish soul overlap with the “lower layers” of G-d.  Similarly, the root of the soul of every particular Jew is connected to the root of the souls of every other Jew.  On this layer of soul, all Jews are one and are dubbed “כנסת ישראל”.  The mystics go on and say that the roots of all Jewish souls are found in Hashem’s Feminine and Indwelling Presence, a.k.a. His Shechina.  This means that deep, deep  within us we are One with Hashem.  The Tanya provides a definition of the Jewish soul that sums this up succinctly when he calls the neshama a “חלק אלוק ממעל ממש” – a piece of Hashem on High, in actuality.

Now we can understand what Rashi means about the eagle.  G-d doesn’t have a body or a human heart to feel the pain of Exile.  But He doesn’t need to have one – because He has us.  He is in fact our deepest essence, and He experiences everything that we experience, through us.  “עמו אנכי בצרה” – “I am with him [you] in your pain”.  There was never a moment in our history where this wasn’t true. The Shechina has been through a lot – if you pause to combine the pain every Jew has ever suffered, the Shechina has felt it all.

I have heard others comment that most people cannot empathize with the Shechina or feel Hashem’s “pain” צער השכינה today.  It is true, most of us, most of the time, are wrapped up בצער דלי – in our own troubles – and don’t make enough room to dwell on the tzarus of others, and certainly not on the צער, pain of Hashem.  But that doesn’t mean we cannot grow to expand our awareness.  By doing so, paradoxically we will find relief from the onslaught of troubles that meet us in our present exile.  Illness, financial stress, loneliness, marital stress, childlessness, parenting stress – I press you to find someone who is not touched by pain, the inevitable result of exile.  The problem is that we get lost in our troubles, and we try to go them alone.  Let us challenge ourselves to expand our hearts to find deep compassion for others in pain – and by doing so we will find within us the capacity to contemplate the ultimate source of all our pain, the צער השכינה.  We can do it. 

The Gemora says that yes, there is such a thing as being “המתחסד עם בוראו”, clumsily translated as, “doing kindness with our Creator”.  A Jew can enter into empathy with the Divine and in this way he “gives” something to G-d, does chessed to Him, so to speak.  With all that He constantly gives us, let us rise to a level where we can care about what He cares about, and that is Klal Yisroel.  In so doing rise above our personal stories.  When we do that, we will be interweaving our personal story of exile and redemption into the much fuller version of the truth, the story of the Jewish people, and Hashem’s desire for our complete return.

May this Tisha b’av be the last and may we know no more pain.  May the Shechina, which the mystics say is synonymous with Malchus, the revelation of Hashem in this world, rise to its true glory and push the pain of our history far, far into its place in the past.