Life, Death & the In-Between: Tisha B’av on the Road to Yom Kippur
Rabbi Sarah Etz Alon | July 17, 2010
Tisha B’Av is coming up, and coming up fast. I was born on this day, so it’s one of my favorite days of the year and I’ve spent nearly all my life thinking about it. The year that I came into the world, Tisha B’Av fell on Shabbos, and there was no mourning. It’s the kind of interesting cosmic humor twist that I rarely have to deal with when I work up the birth Torahs for new kiddos, but don’t you know G-d likes to laugh with me so that’s how my own Torah works out. Born on the day of supreme mourning for the Jewish People, but also on the one day of the week when we don’t mourn, when we’re celebrating, Shabbos.
Every year I hit this same juncture– do I fast and mourn and sit on the floor, or celebrate my birthday with thanks and praise? In many ways, this is the same question facing many Jews today as we assess the relevance of this dark and gloomy festival. Tradition teaches that one day Moshiach will be born on Tisha B’Av and the whole world will turn toward redemption. Our ultimate day of mourning will become a day of celebration. A great turning from the processes of destruction to an upwelling of re-birth and healing. Rising, like the phoenix up out of the ashes of the fires of our past. And many people are arguing today, as Sages have periodically throughout our history, that the time for mourning events so long buried in our past is over, and the time for healing must begin.
I want to present another option for this day of mourning in our calendar cycle. It is an option rooted in our ancient past, from a time when we saw ourselves as inseparable from the life cycles of the Earth. An option that has the power to transform our approaches to life and death and everyday living, and ultimately to give us the very healing tool necessary for bringing the redemption of humanity and of the Earth. What I’m proposing is that we remove from the three weeks and Tisha B’Av cycle the filter of historical events and return this most ancient spiritual practice to the process of Tshuvah that it is designed to be.
To understand where in the Tshuvah cycles of the Hebrew year the three weeks period falls, one must understand where this period of mourning originated– for it is much older than the destruction of the Temple, going back and back and back to the practice of the peoples of the ancient Near East in celebrating the dying back of the vegetation god of Tammuz or Adonis (or Osiris or Attis), through a three week period of deep mourning and lamentation, and throwing into living waters garlands of flowers to initiate the god’s eventual rising and replenishing of the Earth.
So embedded in the popular psyche was this period of mourning and prayers for the replenished cycles of the Earth, that a millenium after the establishment of the Temple, Isaiah describes women mourning for Adonis, and Ezekial laments the presence of women at the North Gate of the Temple weeping for Tammuz. Over and over again the priests, scribes and rabbis tried to stamp out this practice of lamenting the dying back of the Earth in the heat of the summer, to no effect. So, unable to stamp out the practice, they appropriated it, supplanting the weeping for the Earth with a weeping for the loss of the Temple, and every great moment of destruction in the Jewish People since. This is how we got the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz, Tisha B’Av, and the three weeks of mourning between them.
Now, some of you are saying, “that’s nice, but what does that have to do with us today?”
Well, the problem is, like much of our Wisdom Tradition, the deeper spiritual processes in this practice have been retained by the inner core of mystics, but generally have been lost to the popular mind. For the mystics know what most of the rest of us forgot, and that is that this period of mourning is designed to be an integral part of our yearly Tshuvah cycles, and that it begins on the 17th of Tammuz and ends on Rosh Hashannah– a period of ten weeks, not three! And that this ten week period mimics in its processes the earlier period between Purim and Shavuot. The one turning on the other in an ever deepening journey of balance and inner alignment culminating on Yom Kippur.
Here’s how it works. In the Indigenous Hebrew Mind, as individuals we are not separate from the processes of Creation, but integrally connected to the Living Breathing Earth. The Four Winds live and breathe in us, and with every breath we breathe and are breathed by Creation. Thus, the annual dying back of the Earth’s vegetation is mirrored in the mind’s eye of the human Soul and our psycho-spiritual states follow along, rising and falling with the natural rhythms of the land. Just as the vegetation must die back after its peak growth in preparation for the replenishment of the growth cycles that will begin with the Fall rains– so too, as human earth beings, must our innermost places have a dying back to prepare for the rejuvenation that comes with the great Tshuvah periods at the beginning of the Fall.
The ten week period between the 17th of Tammuz and Rosh HaShanna begins with three weeks of increasing mourning. Not mourning for an historical event from millenium past, but mourning for the processes of grief and doubt and fear born of our own personal experience in the world. For some this will be grief for the loss of loved ones, for others grief from the often harsh realities of life, still others are grieving old traumas, old wounds, old stories still burning in us. These are the big moments of grief easy to identify even as we seek to avoid them. But there also are the less identifiable grief places– the moving from one place in life to another and the grieving of what is being left behind; the grief of children leaving to go off to college; the grief of growing older; the grief of unrealized dreams and aspirations. Human beings have an amazing capacity for carrying grief. For a while this is a good thing, as grief provides us with absorbing and integration time as our life shifts around us. But grief carried beyond its points of usefulness becomes obstructive, keeping us stuck and wounded and afraid of moving forward.
Thus, the initial three weeks period of the summer tshuvah cycle is designed to lead us into ever increasing depths of the points of grief and anger and doubt and fear that we carry within us, until we get to Tisha B’Av where we lay on the floor and let it all out– a total awesome embodiment of the grief process so that we can then push through and release it. Then, we spend the next seven weeks during the Sabbaths of Consolation building ourselves back up again, slowly re-relationshipping with ourselves after releasing the anger-grief bonds that bound us, so that when we get to Rosh HaShanna and enter the Days of Awe we can truly be in a place of freedom from which to bring ourselves into states of balance and right-relationship.
The entire Tshuvah process of the High Holidays depends on this ten week summer tshuvah cycle of embodying and releasing our points of grief. So important is the process of embodying, pushing through and releasing grief during this period that during the time of our wandering in the desert, our ancestors would dig shallow graves for themselves on the night of Tisha B’Av, and lie down in them and go to sleep– so that when they awoke, they literally crawled out of their graves and were re-born anew.
Can you imagine people doing this today? If I had people do this on the retreats I lead, I’d be sued out the yin-yang for psychological trauma. People today are not prepared to deal with death, pain, fear, dis-comfort. Our society avoids these essential life processes like the plague and it is a large part of what is wrong with the world today. In avoiding death, ultimately we are avoiding life. In avoiding grief we avoid healing. In avoiding doubt and fear we avoid risk taking and moving forward. The ancients knew the importance of being present with death, with grief, with doubt and fear. Our ancestors knew these were the keys to life.
This is why the Indigenous Hebrew Calendar gives us this cycle not once, but twice. First in the period between Purim and Shavuot and then again, on a deeper level between the 17th of Tammuz and Rosh HaShanna. On Purim, we turn our world upside down, walking into the in-between spaces and seeing things from the other side. From Purim to Pesach we take a few weeks to engage Amalek– our places of doubt and fear, and also to get rid of our Chametz, the fluffy places that keep us from fully manifesting our essential selves. We root out fear and ground ourselves in substance. All in preparation for moving through Mitzrayim, the narrow places, into Freedom.
And on that first night of Pesach we experienced so long ago, we were instructed to take the blood of our sacrificial lambs, and paint that blood onto either side of our doorposts, and over the lintel on the top– signifying the blood of life on one side, the blood of death on the other and the blood of the in-between in the middle. We did this on the insides of our doorposts, where we had to look at it all night long, screwing up our courage to go forth in the morning, literally walking through the portal of life and death and the in-between. Through all our places of grief and anger and doubt and fear, into Freedom. Then, from Pesach on, we build ourselves up slowly from our spiritual lows into ever renewed places of inner alignment until we reach Shavuot and are ready for Revelation.
These same processes are happening during the Summer tshuvah cycle, only deeper, much deeper. Now we’re beginning with the growth we achieved during the previous Spring tshuvah cycle, and building from there. From the 17th of Tammuz to Tisha B’Av we engage death and grief and anger and doubt and fear– all our biggest deepest Amalek places. And we look to see what stories are we carrying within ourselves that no longer service us? We root out these obstructions, kill them off, grieve for them and release them. This is getting rid of Chametz on a righteously deep and personal level. Then, after we release these grief places on Tisha B’Av, we pass through this deeper Mitzrayim, this deepest narrow place, and begin our re-birthing onto a truer path of Freedom. A path we open up and broaden unhindered by the points of grief and fear we carried with us throughout the year, until we reach Rosh HaShanna, ready to be integrally aligned with our inner essence, our holy of holies, the place we finally enter into on Yom Kippur.
There is a teaching that says that on Rosh Hashanna, HaShem opens three books within which to place souls for the upcoming year– the book of life, into which all the truly righteous peoples go, all 36 of them; and the book of death, into which all the truly irredeemable peoples go, all 36 of them; and the book of the In-Between into which all the rest of us go. Life and Death and the In-Between, a portal we step through twice a year, once on Pesach and once during the Days of Awe. The one portal leading to the deeper path toward the next. A path of true Freedom, of Life.
This is the potential that the period of mourning in the Jewish Calendar has to offer. By actually engaging the full process, integrating it into our yearly Tshuvah cycles, we could emerge a society that is willing to engage death and grief processes and to see these processes as integral to life. Right now, as things stand, the three weeks period of Mourning is not servicing this tshuvah process at all, and indeed goes counter to the whole purpose of embodying our grief so that we can push through and release it, because the current practice of mourning destruction has become a practice of idolizing destruction, of refusing to embrace redemption, of embodying grief, yes, but then not releasing it, and instead using the three weeks period to intensify the collective grief from one year to the next in a horrible cycle of post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s eating our people from the inside out, and obstructing our collective willingness to choose life.
Let us reconsider how we approach this crucial ten week period of tshuvah during the summer months, and follow in the words of David Melech in Psalm 16 who declared:
“You makest me to know the Path of Life”