Bereft of tallit and tefillin, I sat on my bedroom floor on Thursday morning, davenning alone this Tisha B’Av, chanting the haunting words of Eicha softly to myself. In the catastrophe captured in Eicha, we lament that the inconceivable came to pass as our Temple was destroyed. Our center was gone, and with it, our sense of safety. How deeply the losses of Tisha B’Av resonated in this year of the covid-19 pandemic, economic upheaval, protests for racial justice, political strife, and rising anti-Semitism. Sitting alone on my bedroom floor felt right. “For these things do I weep, my eyes flow with tears: far from me is any comforter who might revive my spirit.” (Eicha 1:16)
In 586 BCE and in 2020, the world becomes unfamiliar as we try to cope with disorienting change. In both instances, we grieve our losses.
The grief of Tisha B’Av is ameliorated by reenacting mourning as a community. On Wednesday night, we sat together around candles in our synagogue parking lot as the voices chanting Eicha emerged from the darkness surrounding us. At night, we were a community of mourners, but in the morning, I was alone. Jewish tradition declares that loss and comfort are community matters; but in my experience, the hard truth is that we all mourn alone. Friends and loved ones try to be comforters for those who grieve, they learn to offer their presence and limit their words; but ultimately, everyone who mourns must walk the path of grief alone.
We have been alone for five months now. Many ask the question: What is community without our building? What are our prayers without a minyan where we can shake a hand, take a seat in our regular place, and hear the voices of our friends? This Tisha B’Av, we truly needed consolation.
Thankfully, this week is Shabbat Nachamu, when the heartbreaking and heart-opening work of seeking consolation begins. In Judaism, in non-pandemic, non-social distanced days, empathy and solace are not individual matters but are played out in the context of an entire community. “Nachamu, Comfort, oh comfort my people, says Adonai” are Isaiah’s words at the beginning of the haftara for this special week. For seven weeks, the entire congregation will be comforted by prophetic words in the Haftarot of Consolation until we reach Rosh Hashanah, the great community day of gathering when we will be consoled directly by our Parent, our Judge, our Creator. Perhaps Jewish tradition is right and I am wrong. The grief and the comfort are consistently communal, even in our isolating covid-19 days.
The essential value of community is likewise represented in this week‘s Torah portion, Va’etchanan. Consolation does not arrive to the individual and it does not fall out of the sky from God, to be received passively by the people. Comfort requires action on the part of an entire people. How do we do this? This rich Torah portion contains the declaration of Sh’ma and V’ahavta, guidelines for a people intent on building a loving relationship with God. “You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might” are the words we declare after the sacred truth of Sh’ma, that God is one and therefore so are we.
How do these words console? In 586 BCE, the First Temple was destroyed and we were exiled in Babylonia, but there we reinvented ourselves. We were comforted by promising never to forget Jerusalem, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue stick to my palate,” (Psalm 137). We pledged to love our one God and through our actions we comforted ourselves.
The Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE and again we lost Jerusalem. The rabbis established houses of learning in Yavneh where they declared that the sacrifices of the Temple would be replaced by Torah, avodah (prayer) and gemilut hasadim (acts of loving kindness) – Torah, with our hearts. Prayer, with our souls. Loving kindness, with our might.
And what of the year of covid-19? We too have lost our precious batei mikdash, our houses of prayer. Some of us are able to gather in parking lots and yards, others indoors in small, mask-covered, socially distant minyanim. Most of us gather in some form of computer screens filled with the faces of our community and the cacophony of “amen” when we are unmuted each weeknight to say Kaddish.
We are the exiles by the Rivers of Babylon. We are the innovators of Yavneh. We too can make the transition from loss to consolation by remembering the essential nature of community. In 586 BCE and in 70 CE, it was not ultimately about the Temple. And today? Are we loyal and steadfast enough to know the same truth, that it is not really about our buildings? It is about loving the One God with all our hearts, souls and might. And that is best done in community.
Now is not the time to abandon our communal institutions or synagogues. Now is the time to take action to counter the loss. Now is the time to Comfort, O comfort My people. Jewish tradition is right and I am right too. Loss is personal. Loss is communal. But healing from that loss is best done in community.