Tisha B’Av and John Lewis

I’ve been thinking a lot about two things that converged today in my mind, in the odd coincidences of life. One, of course was Tisha B’Av, the traditional national day of mourning for the Jewish community, and the other, the funeral of Representative and Civil Rights leader John Lewis, at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

Over the years, I have had a mixed relationship to Tisha B’Av. In short,  I didn’t know anything about this day on the calendar when I was young. Then, as a young adult, I started fasting on the day, seeking connection and relevance. Then after a while longer, I stopped. Something wasn’t resonating with me. Here I was supposed to be sad that the Temple was destroyed and the priestly class as the religious community leaders ended. But I wasn’t sorry the Temple was gone. It was just that event that gave rise to the rabbinic tradition, the deep, profound, and intentional interpretation and applications of text to life, and  the way I saw it, this was what allowed me to live the kind of Jewish life I wanted. The creativity that ensued was, to me, a boon. I never felt disadvantaged to be in the “Diaspora”. I don’t feel like I’m in exile. As time went on,  I began to recognize that Tisha B’Av could be seen in the context of the huge communal shift that the destruction caused, that Tisha B’Av was showing us where the cracks in our lives and society are. We see what needs to be fixed by seeing what is broken, we can mourn the pain that disruption caused, and still celebrate where it led us.

So, how does this mourning connect me to John Lewis’ funeral this afternoon? Like few before him, but like those giants he marched and worked with, Lewis shone a light on what was broken and cracked in our country, and it was his persistent work to keep the light shining bright and hard.  I watched the service today and kept thinking that the huge communal shift that Lewis tried to effect has been re-invigorated this summer, in response to the violence rained upon Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and others.  As Lewis said, Emmett Till was his George Floyd – a tragedy that galvanized the demands for change. The destruction of the Temple was a tragedy that led to a complete overhaul of our religious communal life, and now our country is in the middle of a huge communal shift as many of us shine that hard light on our personal and national past. We mourn for those who gave their lives for the injustice they suffered and are speaking out in their names. We mourned the loss of the Temple then and now, not even knowing how deeply it would impact our community. But look where it got us. I think it was an improvement. Just like the upheaval that forever changed the Jewish community, our whole nation is being upended by the events of this summer’s protests and demands for an end to systemic racism.

As we move toward the month of Elul and the hard work of personal teshuvah, we can also move toward the hard work of restoring our country to the just and righteous society it can be.

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