#TorahForTheResistance is a campaign by young rabbinical and religious students about Jewish resistance to Trump through the lens of faith, Judaism, and spirituality. Read more here.
Buried beneath my conscious experience of life, a dull but continual fear churns within me. It seduces me into believing that destruction is inevitable, that everything I value and fight for, my sense of justice, the people I love, the world we are trying to build together, will all go crumbling into ruin. Slice past my devotion, my conviction, my optimism, and you will find image after image of a world blown apart. Although I try my best to suppress this fear, on Tisha Ba’av I can’t help but confront it directly:
(Lamentations 1:1, 13)
As the sun sets, as our hunger and thirst begin to kick in, on Tisha Ba’av we open the scroll of Lamentations and chant these words, these memories of the past. We watch the nation of our ancestors, the ideals in which they grounded their political, social and economic lives, the devotion that bound them not only to these structures, but to each other — all rend away. We watch Jerusalem stripped of its humanity, its kindness, its meaning, its people. We watch our ancient world stand bereft, evacuated, “a widow.”
This year on Tisha Ba’av, I am not quite sure why I have to ritually resurface these images of destruction. I am already forced to confront them day after day in newspapers and Facebook feeds. Why should I dwell on them in my spiritual life as well? Why should I sit my soul inside of them for 25 hours and mourn? How will this help me? Won’t it just send me further into despair, trap me more fully into what feels like the rubble of existence right now?
I find myself utterly lacking the desire to commemorate an ancestral memory of ruin this year. I find myself searching instead for an ancestral model by which to fend against what ruins do to me emotionally, psychologically, spiritually. This Tisha Ba’av what I am searching for is hope, not more images of devastation.
I return to one of my favorite texts.
After the destruction of the Second Temple on Tisha Ba’av in 70 CE, the ancient sage, Rabbi Yosie, began to travel the countryside of his fallen nation. We do not know where he was headed. We do not know what he was searching for. All we know is what happened to him when he returned to Jerusalem and came face-to-face with his shattered world. R. Yosie recounts his tale as follows:
I was treading a path, then came to the rubble of Jerusalem. Into one of its ruins I entered, and there I prayed. An apparition of Elijah (may his memory be for the Good) followed me in. He stood at the threshold and guarded me, lingering at the opening until I had finished my prayer. My prayer completed, Elijah greeted me, saying: “Peace be upon you, Rabbi.”
I responded, “Peace upon you, Rabbi, Teacher.”
Elijah asked, “Why have you entered into this ruin?”
I answered, “To pray.”
Said Elijah, “You should have prayed on the path…”
At which moment I realized: One must not enter into a ruin…to pray.
(BT Berachos 3a)
This rather odd, ghost tale comes with an equally odd moral: “One must not enter a ruin…to pray.” While this law was given by the spirit of Elijah, we never explicitly hear the reason why. We never hear why Elijah prohibits R. Yosie from mingling prayer with ruin. The question is intriguing to me. The question helps me frame so much of what divides hope from hopelessness.
To enter a ruin is to surround yourself in a fallen world, its shattered dreams, the effects of the cruelty of power. To enter into a ruin is to encounter totalizing despair. To enter into prayer, in contrast, is to begin to imagine something else, is to tap back into a sense of capacity, potential, transformation, resistance. Prayer – in its broadest sense – is whatever we do to connect to something greater than ourselves. Whereas ruin can suffocate prayer, prayer – if prayed from a path overlooking ruin – can hold, weep into, then move beyond ruin.
This year on Tisha Ba’av, instead of sitting my soul in midst of everything that feels shattered, I will be standing myself on a path overlooking the shards, coaxing my feet forward, my hands outward, my heart upward. Which is all to say, this Tisha Ba’av I will be praying as R. Yosie learned eventually to do, ruins at my side, ancestors at my back, future on my face. Hope stirring, but not naively.
This piece of #TorahForTheResistance is written by Rabbi Jordan Schuster. Jordan teaches at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College and serves as Associate Director of the college’s Mysticism and Mindful Living track.