Jewish time is often expressed as a series of cycles: the daily prayer cycle, the weekly flow towards, and through, Shabbat, with its accompanying cycle of Torah, the annual cycle of holy days, which we count each Rosh Hashanah. Underlying these cycles we find cosmic time, the cycles of the sun and moon. Jewish tradition has layered agriculturally rooted festivals with religious significance. Somewhat distinct from these shorter cycles are the cycles of our lives, which we acknowledge Jewishly through traditional life-cycle rituals.
For most of us, Jewish time does not exist in isolation, but intertwines with secular time, punctuated by its own distinct list of “holy” days. For some, the Thanksgiving feast and the Yom Kippur fast are equally vital to our personal, familial, and/or communal lives. For some, Jan. 1 feels empty after the experience of Rosh Hashanah. For some, both of these hold true. And like many Jewish traditions, the practice and meaning of special days on the American calendar have shifted or waned over years.
We also live amid the religious calendars of those around us. If we are willing, we can see how shared agricultural, and cultural, roots bring Jewish practice into sync with our neighbors. Purim and Carnival (of which the familiar Mardi Gras is but one manifestation) bring bawdiness to late winter; and Pesach and Easter nod to the pagan Ostara and the rebirth of spring. Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and Diwali all seek to bring light to the darkness. So even holidays with unique historical significance blend a bit into a shared universal experience.
Amid all these cycles, no time of the year feels more out of sync to me than summer, those months characterized in our secular world by play and leisure and accented with festive barbeques. Jewishly, we are moving towards destruction, with increasing anxiety and restriction, until we reach Tisha B’Av, one of only two major fasts on our calendar. The energy, the timing and the story, a series of catastrophes spanning millennia, are uniquely Jewish. As a Jewish American who has hardly experienced displacement or oppression, it has been hard to perseverate on the destruction of the Jewish past and feel authentic. Perhaps this is why I have had difficulty making a deep connection to this Jewish moment.
This changed for me when I began to reach beyond our Jewish stories, revaluing the fast and the focus of the day. Only by expanding my view, by acknowledging suffering and oppression everywhere, by addressing the senseless hatred in our world, parallel to that which caused the destruction of Jewish society and then of Jewish space two thousand years ago, have I found a genuine expression of Tisha B’Av. Heat and hunger spark both ancient memory and immanent awareness.
Yom Kippur is our other major fast and tradition links the two through seven weeks of consolation and ten Days of Awe. Rather than an isolated historical moment, Tisha B’av is the spiritual beginning of the High Holy Days. I have long appreciated the fast of Yom Kippur as an opportunity for looking inward and cultivating gratitude. The fast of the Ninth of Av provides opportunity for looking outward and cultivating empathy.
Hashiveynu Adonai eilecha v’nashuvah, “Turn us to you, Eternal One, and we will be turned” – thus ends the book of Eicha, or Lamentations, read on Tisha B’av. Here we begin the theme of turning, or returning, that highlights our Days of Awe. This month we begin our annual ritual of breaking down and rebuilding our lives. But these should not be experienced as repetitive circles, like on our calendars, but as spirals, winding constantly toward growth, love, and peace. Ken y’hi ratzon.
Rabbi Michal Woll is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shir Hadash, a Reconstructionist congregation on the East Side of Milwaukee.