This Shabbat, we are starting the fifth Book of Moses, called “Devarim” or “Deuteronomy.” In addition, it is the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av, which is a day of mourning and commemoration on the Jewish calendar. And the Shabbat immediately preceding Tisha b’Av is always called “Shabbat Chazon,” meaning the “Shabbat of Vision.” The vision that we’re talking about, however, is unfortunately not an uplifting or joyous one, but rather the first prophecy expressed by Isaiah, filled with words of rebuke and predictions of doom. It isn’t easy to sit with these emotions of grief and sadness, but I think it’s really quite necessary. Tisha b’Av primarily recalls the destructions of both Temples in Jerusalem (in 587 BCE and 70 CE), along with many other calamities that have befallen our ancestors over the course of millennia. Is it fun to talk about death and destruction, or to have to listen to Isaiah’s words of anger and frustration? No, but think about what it can yield for us all on the other end.
It’s important to think of Tisha b’Av in the context of what we might call “normal” grief, i.e. when a loved one dies and we’re mourning a personal loss. If we don’t acknowledge our sadness and allow ourselves to cry, we can’t process what has happened, and it is very difficult to move on and begin to heal. For both our national grief and our personal grief, the goal is not to “get over” our mourning and forget about our loss, but rather to incorporate it into our lives in a healthier way. Tisha b’Av clearly isn’t joyful and celebratory, but perhaps by allowing ourselves to be fully present to what our ancestors endured, we can appreciate our festivities more completely. After all, if those calamities had been worse, we wouldn’t still be here to talk about them, so the very fact of our being able to remember and retell our history is a major cause for celebration!
I would also add that not every occasion needs to be about merriment and feasting. Tisha b’Av is always one of the most spiritual and impactful services for me personally, despite its unpleasant theme. We sit in a dimly lit sanctuary late in the evening (on Saturday night at 8pm), we chant the beautiful Book of Lamentations, and we reflect and introspect. I certainly enjoy many of our other holidays as well, but there is something ancient and powerful about Tisha b’Av that just doesn’t come out for me in many other days on our calendar. I know Saturday night isn’t the most convenient time, and maybe I haven’t sold it very well for you, but I nevertheless encourage you to come and experience it for yourselves. It’s really unlike any other observance we have.
Whether you’re able to attend or not, I also invite you to think about the importance of embracing the wide spectrum of our emotions. Some feel easier to sit with and enjoy, while others can feel painful or uncomfortable. I get it. But that’s also what it means to be a human being, isn’t it? I certainly know it’s a vital part of what it means to be a Jew. In fact, I would argue that our healthy, repeated, persistent engagement with ALL aspects of our history is one of the great powers of the Jewish People, and a major reason why you and I are still here, able to talk about it all! On Shabbat Chazon, we may be chanting a literal doom-and-gloom prophetic vision. And even though Isaiah’s prophecies did come true for the people living at that time, it is also true that we are still here. The Jewish People are still here and able to observe all the sacred occasions on our calendar, and experience all the emotions that come with them. So yes, we will be chanting a pretty sad text. But our very ability to chant that text is itself a cause for celebration.