Aug 4, 2008

Tisha Be’av 5768: “Fire Scars”

Tish Be'av 5768: "Fire Scars"
© Rabbi Menachem Creditor

I stood today in a burnt Holy of Holies, staring at the scorched walls reaching toward the sky. I was moved to tears at the ancient loss, standing in island of black. It was a sacred experience beyond time and it will remain with me.

The holy "fire scar" I witnessed was not in Jerusalem, but rather deep within the Cathedral Grove of Muir Forest. This native sanctuary has weathered wildfires which occasionally kill mature trees and open holes in the canopy toward which younger successors grow. Nearly every big redwood at Muir has a fire scar, a place where long ago flames burned through the bark and cambium layer. But, ever resilient in the face of such phenomena, redwoods slowly cover the scar with new wood; eventually there will be no external sign the burn ever occurred. How familiar this feels to the Jewish soul.

Tisha Be'av, this coming Sunday, is the day upon which we remember (and some mourn) the lost Jerusalem Temples. Tradition has suggested as well that that the following tragedies occurred on Tisha Be'av: the negative report of the spies in the desert, Betar, the last holdout of the Jewish people in the Bar Kochba Revolt fell, the edict for the Spanish expulsion of Jews was issued, and World War I began. Historicity is perhaps less important than meaning here. Tisha Be'av is a day of loss. It is, simply said, a very sad day for the Jewish people.

And yet there is laughter and life and sweetness. As I stood within a tree whose center was burned away I felt both sad and inspired as I contemplated possible connections between two devastated and reborn sacred places. In a place of desolation a determined forest thrives.

I've emphasized, when teaching about Tisha Be'av, not the restrictions similar to those of Yom Kippur (intimacy, washing, eating, drinking, cosmetics), but two prohibitions unique to this day: greeting people and learning Torah. Both Torah and community, two sources of comfort and strength, are circumscribed on this day. So strange, so very not-Jewish! And yet there is a time for this as well, a place for loss and sadness.

The restrictions common to both Yom Kippur and Tisha Be'av set the contexts for their radically different intents. Yom Kippur is about being reborn, about re-establishing connection with God and community. But Tisha Be'av is very different - it is about losing our center.

I don't pray for restoration of the Temple. The Jerusalem Temples were crucial to the development of Modern Judaism, but their place is in our cultural memory - not current practice. I do mourn, however, for the loss of a common center. I don't truly believe that all Jews looked to one place in the same way - I think our modern differences have their roots in the past. But a deep part of me wishes we could have that today - a common center.

When we read on Tisha Be'av the words "my eyes run with water" (Lam. 1:16), we allow ourselves to penetrate deep within to acknowledge and reflect on our own "fire scars." Jerusalem is both a physical place and an aspect of the soul. There is life and there is loss, connection and aloneness. Healing begins, perhaps, when we face our scars.

I walked in a cathedral today, stopping to daven mincha within a tree, and prayed that our scarred centers be safe places from which growth is possible. We pray this Sunday, and every day, for the peace of Jerusalem - both the one we see and the one we contain.

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