Tisha BAv reminds us to find light in the darkness

encino | In the blazing heat of mid-summer, with its long, light-filled days and leisurely pace, we confront the darkest day on the Jewish calendar, Tisha B’Av.

This holiday, which begins this year at sundown on Monday, July 26, marks the destruction of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem, the fall of the Betar fortress to the Romans, the expulsion of Jews from Spain and other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people throughout history.

In many ways, Tisha B’Av is the inverse of Chanukah, a holiday of lights that occurs during the darkest days of winter.

“At the moment of light, we have to remember darkness, and at the moment of darkness, we have to remember light,” says Sharon Brous, rabbi of Ikar, a new spiritual community in Los Angeles that is both traditional and progressive.

But unlike Chanukah, one of the most celebrated Jewish holidays in the United States, Tisha B’Av is commemorated primarily by observant Jews and kids at Jewish summer camps.

Are the rest of us missing an important opportunity? Does the demise of the Temple and, for some, the desire for its return have meaning for us almost 2,000 years later?

“There is a movement in religion today toward greater consciousness and symbolic understanding,” says J. Marvin Spiegelman, an author and Jungian analyst in private practice in the Los Angeles area. “I think when we say we want to rebuild the Temple, we mean that we want to make it real psychologically.”

But before the Temple can be rebuilt, psychologically or otherwise, we need to come to terms with the forces that caused the devastation. As the Talmud tells us, “Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because of idolatry, incest and the spilling of blood within it. And why the second? Because of senseless hatred.”

In other words, because of the forces of darkness that reside within human beings.

“I think it’s healthy to take that upon ourselves,” Spiegelman says. “It’s important that we become aware of evil — our own murderousness, coldness and selfishness — so we don’t act it out and project it out.”

Unlike Yom Kippur, in which we concentrate on individual sins, Tisha B’Av focuses on the collective evil, the darkness or shadow that dwells within a whole community or nation, and the wreckage it can engender.

Evil always has existed. In the book of Isaiah, God says, “I am the Lord and there is none else. I form the light and create darkness. I make peace and create evil. I am the Lord that does all these things.”

Spiegelman observes, “There’s a sense, though, that the world is particularly off-kilter now.”

Thus, the need to recognize the darkness is even more crucial.

“Ultimately Tisha B’Av is about emerging from the darkness into something much more whole,” Brous says.

To do this, both Brous and Spiegelman see power in the time-honored traditions of Tisha B’Av.

This includes observing a 25-hour fast from sundown to nightfall and, during evening services, sitting on the floor in semi-darkness reading the book of Eicha — Lamentations — and other kinot, or elegies, which also are read the following day.

“But we can’t just go through the motions. We have to contextualize it, to ask, ‘What are we actually doing? What does it mean to commemorate this event right now in this way?'” Brous says. “The problem now is we have only the shell of the ritual without the essence.”

The summer camp experience often provides more context.

At Camp Ramah of California, located in the Ojai Valley north of Los Angeles, campers and staff gather together on Tisha B’Av eve in the outdoor synagogue, the area illuminated by dim candlelight. They sit on the ground as mourners and listen as Eicha is read.

Afterwards, before the campers leave for their tents, Rabbi Daniel Greyber, executive director of Camp Ramah of California and the Zimmer Conference Center, urges them not to speak to one another.

“I want to create an awareness for them of how we use words and the ways in which they’re hurtful to one another. I want to bring alive what it feels like to hate each other so much that we can’t even speak to one another and how destructive this was for the Jewish people.”

That evening, staff members watch “Nine Days in November,” an Israeli film depicting the years and months leading up to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

“I believe that there’s no time in modern Jewish history that better reflects the dangers of sinat chinam, senseless hatred, than that moment,” Greyber says.

The following day, the mood progressively lightens.

Campers engage in creative projects, such as painting murals of Jerusalem or acting in skits about hurtful speech. They talk about the importance of Israel.

“Tisha B’Av is not the most fun day in camp. The kids learn about some of the dark things that have happened to the Jewish people historically. But they walk away having grown as individuals, with a very deep message about what it means to be part of the Jewish people and to take responsibility for creating the Jewish community they want,” Greyber says.

That is the message Tisha B’Av can teach all of us — to take responsibility. And not only for the Jewish community.

“Tisha B’Av isn’t just ancient history; it’s also the awful, sad and gruesome reality for many people today. A lot of the horrible images that are depicted in Lamentations are actually happening in the world, in places like Sudan and Haiti,” Brous says.

Tisha B’Av teaches us that survival and change are possible. The destruction of the Temple, horrific as it was, revolutionized Judaism, dispersing us in all directions and eventually transforming our communication with God from animal sacrifices and priestly rituals to prayer and good deeds. And we have been able to continue to survive.

We have turned the minor holiday of Chanukah into an extravaganza of light and celebration. Can we now turn the most tragic day in Jewish history into an experience of deep significance and transformation?

“Let there be light,’ God says in Genesis.

But let us also not forget the darkness.

Jane Ulman lives in Encino and writes this column for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.