August 22, 2019

Elul Week Three: From Pain to Miracle

This is the third of six weekly columns by Rabbi Zimmerman leading up to Yom Kippur.

The essential journey at this time of year moves from brokenness to wholeness. Last week, we explored the golden calf story as a metaphor for when we lose connection with oneness. The shattered tablets provide an opportunity to reflect on what is broken in our lives.

Some fractures in our lives occur because we veer off the path. Other ruptures happen to us: We have been hurt or forgotten; we experience losses, illnesses and breakups. 

There’s another powerful story of brokenness that provides an alternative prism for our Elul reflection.

In summer, we commemorate the saddest day of the Jewish year. On the ninth day of Av, Tisha b’Av, we mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem and recount the cataclysmic trauma of our people when everything changed.

It is difficult for us moderns to understand the central role of the Temple and the nature of this calamity. The Temple was the Holy of Holies of Jewish life and, in fact, a physical manifestation of Mount Sinai. It was where we connected with God and it represented all that was solid and stable. It was home.

In 70 C.E., soldiers of the Roman Empire destroyed the Second Temple. We were then exiled and dispersed and became refugees.

The rabbis in the Talmud discussed the fall of the Second Temple through a profoundly illuminating process. They wondered why the Temple fell. The easy, historically correct answer would have been that the Roman army was mighty and we couldn’t match their power. But the rabbis moved beyond blame and victimhood, explored the people’s own complicity, and framed their explanation of the event in a spiritual context: The Temple fell because of “baseless hatred” between Jews — sinat chinam.

There’s more. A great miracle happened in the aftermath of the Second Temple’s destruction. Amid their despair, our rabbis realized they had two choices: They could either watch Judaism die or they could build something new — a Judaism of the heart. The latter, they figured, could not be dismantled like a physical building. Their creative response, born in sorrow and grief, changed Judaism forever. 

Out of death came a rebirth of Judaism that continues to sustain us. Torah (study), avodah (work and worship) and gemilut hasadim (acts of lovingkindness) became the replacement for the Temple. Today, we practice the Judaism born from the rubble. 

The rabbis did not move into blame and victimhood. No, they explored the people’s own complicity. 

We often are not directly responsible for the bad things that happen to us. However, we are always responsible for how we respond.

Rabbi Alan Lew z’’l, in his book “This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared,” asks us to examine during Elul: What is the recurring tragedy that shows up in our life, time and time again? Furthermore, what in our life did we expect to be solid and everlasting but has fallen apart? 

Often, we are not directly responsible for the bad things that happen to us. However, we are always responsible for how we respond to what happens. This is core to Elul reflection and to our own agency. We look at how we have responded to the events of the year, whether we were at fault or not.

Each one of us needs to do the same: Look at the debris of our year, whether or not we have caused it, and scrutinize how we have responded. If we have spent the year in blame, regret or apathy, the time to turn is now. 

For the rabbis, Tisha b’Av marks the moment of turning and returning. The Torah reading for the holiday speaks of teshuvah, the soul-work we are required to do before we stand as one community and confess our individual and collective brokenness.

For your Elul practices this week, I suggest journaling to the questions raised above and examining your personal experiences with brokenness. My wish for you is that during this process of reflection you may notice a shift, a change — perhaps, you might say, a miracle: The pain that seemed like it would never recede begins to turn. 

We continue the journey next week.

Rabbi Jill Berkson Zimmerman is a rabbi-at-large. She has created a Holy Days Spiritual & Practical Preparation Checklist, available on her website at