I'm Jon Spira-Savett, rabbi at Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, New Hampshire. This website and blog is a resource for Jewish learning and Jewish action. It is a way to share my thoughts beyond my classes and weekly Divrei Torah. You'll find blog posts, standing resource pages with links and things to read, and podcasts as well.
This is almost too good to be true: the beginning of the month of Av in the Jewish calendar this year coincided with opening day for Major League Baseball.
Usually around this time of year I show you this T-shirt based on an observation by Rabbi Morris Allen at my parents’ shul about the absolute parallels between the Jewish calendar and the baseball calendar.
In all other years, pitchers and catchers report to training camps around Tu Bishevat, and spring training games begin around Purim. Which is for us the start of a warmup period too, with planning and preparation for Pesach, which generally coincides with baseball’s Opening Day!
On the T-shirt this part of a typical year is what here is called the “dog days of summer”, and it lines up with Tisha B’Av, the fast commemorating the destruction of the Batei Mikdash (the two Temples). In baseball this kicks off a hot and hard period of time leading to the pennant races for spots in the playoffs and the World Series. The climactic moments of the season in September and October coincide with the month of Tishrei and the High Holy Days. (Well, they did before the expanded playoffs!)
This year, time and the seasons have been disrupted, and summer isn’t what summer usually is for many of us. Even baseball has this compressed season -- the whole cycle from Opening Day through the champshiop will take place in three months from now to the end of October. And for us, our season of teshuvah, of reflection and renewal, begins now with the week of Tisha B’Av and this Shabbat called Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbat of Vision.
This week and this Shabbat kick off two months of reflection that lead toward the big games, so to speak, the High Holy Days, when we judge how the past year went and think about our destiny in the new year. We think about being in exile and coming home. We spend a month, well into October, with the holy days through Sukkot and Simchat Torah.
Like in baseball, there’s a lot this year packed into three months. But baseball’s new Opening Day, just invented out of whole cloth, can remind us that time in a ritual sense is something we construct as communities, to help us do what would otherwise seem infinite and overwhelming. Without the calendar rhythms and rituals, it would be harder to stop and take note of our blessings. Without them we couldn’t step out of everything that’s driving us, to tell stories of our past, stories of challenges and resilience, stories of difficulty and hope.
Without the calendar in particular, we could easily be overwhelmed by the demands of staying alive and getting by, in a world that is enormous and throws so much at us.
My teachers at the Seminary, Rabbi Neil Gillman and Rabbi Joe Lukinsky, taught us what calendars and rituals do for human communities. They are how we fight for some order out of chaos, and how we build actual power to push some of the chaos away. Think about how many of our rituals take place at the moments when darkness begins. Our candles on Friday night and Saturday night, when we fight off the darkness where danger might lurk -- we refuse to retreat, we insist on saying I am standing, we are standing. In Jewish ritual, we choose those night times for our most messianic dreams -- when we step into Shabbat, the Taste of the World to come; when we step out of Shabbat in the first darkness of the week and summon Eliyahu, the prophet who tells us when redemption will arrive for the whole world.
Think about how many of our rituals are sitting in circles, or nowadays rectangular circles around tables, singing -- creating strength, covalent bonds between us, a binding chemistry that draws out the power in each other that is more than the sum of all our parts.
Our genius as human beings is ritual and calendar. These allow us to pull blessing and strength and resilience and connection out of the chaos that could be the world. otherwise Rituals are supposed to help us face what we are afraid of and make it safer to be afraid and handle fears, together with each other, together with the wisdom of our ancestors. Rituals let us tell stories not just about the past but about the future, the crazy audacious stories of a world so much more perfect thatn our own.
Rituals aren’t life, and they aren’t the only thing religion is supposed to be. They are where we find the energy pods, the wisdom pods, and the connecting bonds that we need to go out and live. Rituals and holy days are not for themselves -- they are for life,as a whole and we need them so we can live in this challenging time.
This year, we especially need those rituals. We will use them and wring us much as we can out of them in this particular season of this particular year. We need to consciously bring more of the rituals and more of the calendar rhythm, from this Opening Day of the beginning of Av all through the whole holy day season, Rosh Hashanah through Simchat Torah. We need to use all of it, because there is so much chaos and so much overwhelm in our worlds. As individuals, as households, as parents and schoolchildren, as citizens.
I want to help us this year make use of all the time of these three months coming, especially starting with Elul at the next new moon. And I want to help us make use of rituals that we sometimes just do superficially.
The four weeks of Elul leading up to Rosh Hashanah should include four deliberate check-ins. Maybe you’ll set aside four times for yourself to sit and reflect. Or meet four times with a group of people online or in a yard, twice to look back and twice to talk about hopes for the new year. Or maybe you commit to just getting to know a group better within the congregation, or learning something that might be valuable for your new year from a Jewish source.
We will have the sweet apples and honey, so we can think about what is still sweet in our lives, what is fruitful, what has been generative this year that we forgot to notice. We can look at the seeds and think of what we planted, or who planted something inside us that has grown beautiful and nourishing to others. We can think about what might grow and what will be sweet even in this unique new year.
We have the shofar, blown every day of Elul and on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We will think about the shevarim blasts, the brokenness of our world and the things that broke apart for us in our lives, and how we want to see them put together again. We will think about the t’ruah blasts, the scattered details of our lives as we have learned how to do each little thing again in a new way. We will think about the t’kiah gedolah, the clear calls we still believe in and still want to hear, the ways we are whole, the summons towhere we want to be going.
We will have lakes and streams and oceans we can stand by, where we can toss away the things we badly want gone from our old year.
We will have the sukkah, the simple structure that challenges us to think about what protection is, what we really need in our material lives. By the time of Sukkot, we can hopefully think of ourselves as active builders of the new year.
All of these times and rituals will help us think about uncertainty and fears, and give us time to reflect and redirect -- and help us find the powers we still have, the wisdom we still have, the power and wisdom we can share with each other, all that power over the chaos of 2020 and 5780. Our rituals and our calendar will not be another demand added to an overwhelming list. They will make our lives easier, and help us turn our cries into songs.
We will have this new season through these months, from the new Opening Day we declare this week to the World Series of our holy days. One way or another -- together, online --we will stand in circles as the sky becomes purple, and light our candles, and sing together,so we can live well in a new year.
This Shabbat we open Sefer Dvarim, the book of Deuteronomy. This Shabbat is also known as Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbat of "The Vision", which refers to the Haftarah taken from the opening of the book of the prophet Yeshayahu. It is always read on the Shabbat that precedes Tisha B'Av, (the ninth day of the month Av), the anniversary by the Jewish calendar of the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem. Solomon's Temple was destroyed in 586 B.C.E. by the Babylonians, and the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E.
According to the Talmud, the Second Temple was destoyed because of sin'at chinam, "gratuitous hate" of one Jew for another. Stories are told of petty gossip and infighting between people. When a nation is sick at that ground level, there is no way it can defend itself against an outside force, or any great challenge. Deuteronomy is read at this time of year as an antidote to that -- a vision. The entire book is about a gathering, where the entire nation of Israel stands together and listens to Moshe. He recounts their story, and the laws that will shape their society when they enter the promised land.
Unfortunately this year, Shabbat Chazon and Tisha B'Av come at a time of great challenge to the unity of Am Yisrael. Earlier this week, a committee of the Israeli Knesset approved a bill governing conversions to Judaism. In Israel, all marriage and divorce are overseen by the various religious communities -- there is no civil marriage, and no Jew can be married in Israel unless both partners are Jewish. The rabbis verify whether a person was born of a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism. The Law of Return enables any Jew in the world to come and become a citizen of Israel. The question of "Who is a Jew?" under Israeli law thus affects the most basic issues of citizenship and family.
The Chief Rabbinate, who are the official Jewish religious authorities in Israel, are Orthodox and more and more shaped by the charedi or "ultra-Orthodox" view of Jewish law. The proposal in the Knesset would write into law for the first time the authority of the Chief Rabbinate over all conversions. The Orthodox establishment in Israel does not recognize the validity of non-Orthodox conversions, and more and more this is true in the United States as well. So the proposed law would have far-reaching effects on who can become an Israeli citizen and who can marry.
So for instance, in a particularly horrible story, a young woman named Jessica Fishman made aliyah, served two years in the army, and became engaged to an Israeli. She grew up in a kosher home, attended Jewish day school, walked to her Conservative synagogue. When the Israeli rabbis were verifying that she was Jewish, they learned that Jessica's mother had converted with a Reform rabbi. They ruled that Jessica's mother was not Jewish, and neither therefore was Jessica. In order to marry in Israel, she would have to convert to Judaism. The Israeli authorities were rejecting her as a Jew. Jessica decided to leave Israel.
The other outrageous event of last week was the arrest of Anat Hoffman, director of the Israeli Religious Action Center for the Reform movement. She was arrested at the Kotel, the Western Wall, for carrying a Torah scroll at a women's minyan at the back of the women's section. Here it is in video. I see this, and: Eini eini yordah mayim -- my eyes, my eyes flow with tears (Lamentations 1:16, which we read this Monday night on Tisha B'Av).
Such things as this must not happen among Jews, and especially not in Israel. No group should have a political monopoly on love of Torah and the Jewish people. So there are two things I ask you to do in response. For we must not simply weep and be angry. First, click here to write Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, asking him to prevent passage of the conversion bill.
The second thing is more difficult. The Jewish religious right argues that they should make decisions about who is Jewish and what is Judaism, because the rest of us are not dedicated enough. So let's make sure that is not true. Find a mitzvah -- any mitzvah -- and dedicate yourself to it, beginning now. Now, as we begin the leadup to Rosh Hashanah. It's not to tell anyone, or use a political tool. Just as a way to make sure that we are the Jews we need to be, at a time when the Jewish people need to be one again.
The lesson of Tisha B'Av is that we can only be harmed when we have torn ourselves apart. May it be God's will, and our mission, that it doesn't happen.
I hate to say this, but this Shabbat is a signal that the High Holidays are coming.
We turn a page in the Torah cycle and begin reading the book of Dvarim or Deuteronomy, which will be our backdrop from now all through the High Holidays until Simchat Torah in mid-October. This Shabbat begins the week when we commemorate Tisha B'Av. That's a fast day, a kind of seasonal book-end matched with Yom Kippur.
Week by week, we will be guided to the holidays by two voices from the Tanakh, the Bible. One is the voice of Moshe (Moses). Deuteronomy is unique among the five books of the Torah. The other four books come to us via a narrator, who tells us "The Lord spoke to Avraham, to Yaakov, to Moshe...." This last book is, until the last little bit, in the first-person voice of Moshe. It presents a series of speeches he delivers to the assembled gathering of Israelites as they get ready to enter their new home.
The other voice belongs to the prophet Yeshayahu (Isaiah). Each of the haftarah readings comes from the last half of the book of Isaiah, except for this week's which comes from the first chapter.
Moshe and Yeshayahu are our two guides as we get ready for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It's time to get focused on teshuvah -- on looking into ourselves and at ourselves, on assessing our relationships with others and taking steps to repair them if needed. Moshe's voice is insistent -- you need to do this! Yeshayahu's voice is encouraging -- you can do this!
Moshe is concerned that we will forget the things that should guide our life. He spends the coming weeks reviewing the laws, reminding us where things veered off course, warning us of dangers. If he could, he might just step in and make sure we don't do the wrong thing, that's how it sounds sometimes! But he knows he is not going with the people into the new land. He knows that only we, each of us, can go ahead into the new year. So Moshe reminds us of the rewards that come from leading our lives in line with God's wisdom.
Yeshayahu is concerned that failure, suffering, and pain will cause us to lose hope that things can ever change for the better. Historically, he preached when decades of destruction and exile were coming to an end, in the sixth century B.C.E. He knows that we hear voices that cause us to doubt ourselves and the power of the Divine. Yeshayahu sees the light at the end of the tunnel, and in his mind's eye we're already there, shining in our glory.
Each week in the synagogue we'll be able to hear these two voices. These two prophets, from Deuteronomy and Isaiah, are your personal teshuvah assistants in the weeks leading up to the High Holidays. Pay attention to them, concentrate on them even more than the specific words, laws, exhortations. It's possible you need to hear one more than the other this year -- more Moshe or more Yeshayahau, more goading or more cheering, more "come on!" or more "you've got it!" It's possible that will change from week to week. In any combination, they can help you frame your approach to the season of reflection and change.