The Doorway of Tisha B’Av
[Ed. Note: Tisha B'Av (the 9th of Av) has just passed for this year as this entry appears. We offer this entry, tying Tisha B'Av, the loss of parents, and the ability to expand compassion. — JB]
The death of our parents binds us to Tisha B’Av (the 9th of the Jewish month of Av), the lowest point in the Jewish year. Tisha B’Av is a yahrzeit (memorial anniversary of a death): it commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples, and a long history of exiles.
The destruction of a holy place is a profound loss, a source of sadness, grief, even despair.
When our parents die, Tisha b’Av has a particular resonance. When our parents die, we lose an edifice, a sacred order in our lives and in our families. When our parents die, we bring our personal sense of displacement to the sacred sadness of Tisha b’Av.
Like the medieval Rabbi Bahya of Barcelona, Rabbi Meir Shapiro, the 18th century Hasidic Master known as the Or Ha-Me’ir, saw a tripartite parallel inherent in Tisha b’Av. In the Or Ha-Me’ir’s understanding of the deepest meaning of Tisha B’Av, there is a mystical connection between the self, the Temple, and Creation.
The death of our parents changes us. That primary loss affects our relationship to all of Creation and to our own sense of self. The Or Ha-Me’ir recognizes that a spiritual loss affects our physical well-being, and instructs us to take the care of ourselves seriously. Even after death, our physical bodies matter. Taharah, the purification ritual, is not just a washing. The Taharah liturgy describes the body as a sacred temple that we care for as we prepare the soul for its ascent.
Our bodies are temples that house our holy of holies, our hearts. Grief changes our hearts. If grief does its transformative work, our hearts can open to greater compassion for our own suffering, the suffering of others, and the suffering of the world.
As we move through the Three Weeks (the period from the fast of the 17th day of the Jewish month of Tamuz, commemorating the breach of the walls of Jerusalem to the 9th of Av commemorating the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E, and in 70 C.E.), and the Jewish month of Elul ( the last month of the year) leading up to the High Holy Days, we ride a wave of memories that takes us to the first Yizkor (memorial) service of the new year on Yom Kippur afternoon, and then almost immediately to the second Yizkor service on the second day of Sukkot.
The arc of our calendar, from Tisha B’Av to the Yizkor that we pray at Sukkot, mirrors the shift from the physical destruction of the Temple to the building of our sukkah (temporary shelter). The sukkah is the most temporary of dwellings, and a better metaphor for understanding our place in our families and in the world.
Each year, we experience again the reality of our lives: every structure that we build is fragile, every loss feels like exile, every death reminds us of our own mortality.
But our awareness of the temporary quality of structures is not an end. Sukkot’s Yizkor comes at the beginning of the holiday, teaching us how to put ourselves and Creation into balance —reminding us that grief can lead us to a greater capacity for joy.
Muriel Dance has just retired from her work as a hospice chaplain at Skirball Hospice, a program of the LA Jewish Home. She is leading a Wise Aging workshop series at Ikar, her congregation in LA. She graduated as a Jewish Chaplain from the Academy for Jewish Religion, California and received Board Certification in January 2013. Previously, Muriel had earned her Ph.D. in English from UC Berkeley, worked as a professor and later a dean in higher education, spent a sabbatical year in Israel at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and chaired the adult education committee at her congregation in Seattle.
Rabbi Janet Madden PhD was ordained by The Academy for Jewish Religion-California. She serves as the rabbi of Temple Havurat Emet and Providence Saint John’s Health Center and has been a student of the Gamliel Institute.
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