Tisha B’Av: Shifting out of autopilot
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Tisha B’Av: Shifting out of autopilot

Glen Rock Jewish Center, Conservative

Last year, I broke my Tisha B’Av fast on a grape. A grape, as in, one grape. And that’s it.

I didn’t mean to do it. I happened to be grocery shopping in the late afternoon of the fast day and, as my grandmother Frieda, of blessed memory, taught me, “you must always taste the grapes first, before you buy them.” (May God grant me a place in the Garden of Eden, even though I fudge a little on the mitzvah of proper weights and measures by consuming these “free” grapes!) I was on autopilot and wasn’t thinking when I did this. It wasn’t until I marveled at the juicy taste in my mouth that I realized what I had done. I went about 22 hours without eating or drinking in the heat of the summer — and then I threw it all away on… a grape!

Technically, there are plenty of sources that would support that my consumption of the grape would not constitute eating, mainly because the grape was not considered k’zayit, like the size of an olive, which is the measurement used to define “eating.” (Oh no, but what if my grape was larger than an olive — I didn’t even take note before I popped it in my mouth!) When I told others, someone reminded me that last year the fast was (as is the case this year) a nidche fast, a fast which was postponed because the 9th of Av fell on Shabbat and, therefore, allowed for more leniencies as well. Nonetheless, I didn’t use this as an excuse to start eating. I continued fasting until sundown that night.

But I want to go back to that grape. Because there’s something about my autopilot instinct to taste that grape without even thinking that very much relates to Tisha B’Av.

My colleague Rabbi Alan Lucas points out in his chapter in “The Observant Life: The Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews” (Rabbinical Assembly, 2012) that “it takes three special Shabbatot to prepare for Tisha Be’av, but seven to recover from it.”

Through the three haftarot of rebuke leading up to Tisha B’Av, including on Shabbat Hazon (this final Shabbat before the holiday), we prepare to revisit the destruction, to experience it anew in our lives, to wallow in that sadness. And yet, we spend more than double that, seven total weeks, being comforted by the haftarot of consolation.

In sum, destruction can be quick. Recovery takes time.

This is true in our own lives as well. They say that it could take years for someone to recover from a breakup or an affair. And we all know people who continue to hold grudges years later. If you think about an illness or a wound, these injuries could happen in a second, but often recovery takes a long time. In some cases, their impact is even lifelong.

What I am most interested in is the shift that takes place between injury and recovery. In other words, what is the turning point that helps us heal, mend or repair those fractured parts of our lives that moves us along the path of healing?

Tisha B’Av, I believe, and fasts, are very much part of those shifts.

When we fast, we take ourselves to a deep place. We think and self-reflect. We might feel more grateful. Sure, fasting is considered an affliction to our bodies, but it also becomes an exercise of our souls. We begin to address the pain, the injury, the destruction, in different, more productive ways.

Frequently, that is not our go-to when dealing with stress or pain in the world around us. Often, we resort to band-aid fixes, things that temporarily cover-up the wounds. For some of us, we resort to ice cream, or maybe grabbing a bottle of beer. For others, it’s exercise or watching TV. But we have all seen how sometimes these forms of self-help lead to destruction or self-harm. A little snack could lead to binge eating. One drink can lead to alcoholism. Any mechanism of self-soothing could ultimately become an addiction. And even when it does not become an addiction, per se, we find that afterwards, the stress or pain is still there. We haven’t dealt with it, we merely covered it up.

Tisha B’Av, to our Jewish peoplehood, is about shifting the evilness of the world toward good, hoping and yearning for a day when the world experiences ultimate tikkun, repair. And that shift happens most beautifully when we take our souls to a deeper place, connecting with God, using a tool that is different from our automatic vices. We address the pain head-on instead of covering it up. It’s a longer process, sometimes causes even more pain, but it’s honest and raw and pure.

How do we do this?

Fasting is one way to do that, but for those who are unable to fast, perhaps there are other ways of spending time reflecting, appreciating and beginning to shift towards a different kind of repair. Maybe writing, reading, praying, giving, or volunteering?

This Tisha B’Av, I pray that the Jewish peoplehood, our communities and families, and we individuals begin to make healthy shifts in our own lives — shifts that move us from being on autopilot to living a life with greater intention, pureness and healing.

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