Learning to Live with Loss – Sermon for Parashat Devarim

Last night I had a rare opportunity to teach a class with a wonderful colleague of ours
here in Indianapolis, Rabbi Ben Sendrow of Shaarei Tefilla. We were asked to teach as part of
the adult education series at the BJE this summer, which usually draws a nice crowd. And
yesterday, Rabbi Sendrow and I chose to speak about the holiday which occurs this weekend, a
minor day which is actually one of the more important fast days of the Jewish calendar.

If you are wondering which holiday you missed in the Kulanu, you are not alone. This
fast day has been observed less and less within the Reform Jewish community and in fact there
are a few very compelling reasons why we have done so.

The day is known as the ninth of Av, because, well, it is the ninth day of the month of
Av. In Hebrew that is Tisha B’av. Tradition tells us that several significant tragedies befell the
Jewish people on this date, which are clearly worthy of remembrance. The first and second
Temples were destroyed, and later the entire city of Jerusalem was ransacked on this day. In
modern history we associate the expulsion of the Jews from Spain with this date, the beginning
of the final attack on the Warsaw Ghetto, and the recent war with Hezbollah all occurred on this
date. Our enemies know their history, and they often use this date as a psychological weapon
against us.

Rabbi Sendrow and I decided to take opposite sides of a friendly debate about the day. I
argued, somewhat polemically, that this particular observance is best left in the rear view mirror.
We have simply moved past these terrible events, and who needs such a depressing holiday in
the middle of the summer? Sendrow took the opposite stance.

He argued that these ancient events have made us who we are, and that we are doomed to repeat
history if we forget it.

Some consider it a stroke of genius that the ancient rabbis dictated a single day in the
calendar for mourning, loss and sadness. We certainly have had more than our share of
oppression, and acts of anti-Semitism. And just as certainly – those events have made us who we
are, a people tested again and again by the fires of hate. But we could easily become enveloped
in the cocoon of grief, were we to allow these events to define us fully, days of remembrances
could overwhelm the calendar. Instead we lump them together on one day, and only Yom
Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance day feels as significant in its grief.

But coming as it does, in the middle of the summer, many of us feel little to pull us
towards this observance. We have largely ignored this holiday from an historic standpoint in the
Reform movement. And I understand, I do. We have our opportunity to focus on negativity and
depression in just a few months, Yom Kippur will be here so enough. Why do we need this head
start on grief?

Well, truth be told – there is a deeper prayer in Tisha B’av that we, all of us need to hear,
we need to offer that prayer which is buried within the ancient texts.

Even the ancient rabbis understood that this day was about something more than just
mourning the lost Temple. In fact, their ability to transform their grief into something even more
potent, and live affirming, quite simply allowed Judaism to survive and to thrive – as the very
ground under our feet was shifting. The destruction of Jerusalem left us without a fulcrum,
without ritual, without a homeland.

When the Temple was destroyed, we lost our entire identity. But it was Tisha B’av that gave us
an identity again, and it can do so again today.

A wealthy man once hosted a party and invited the entire city, including the scholars of
the Great study hall, and his good friend, Kamza. In fact he excluded only one person, his
enemy, named Bar Kamza. As fate would have it, his servant mistook the names,
understandably, and delivered Kamza’s invitation to the detested Bar Kamza. Perhaps thinking
that his enemy was attempting reconciliation, Bar Kamza decided to attend. But when the host
saw his enemy at the door, he ordered him to leave. Bar Kamza said, I am already here, don’t
embarrass me before the entire city. I’ll pay for what I eat. I’ll pay for half the party; I’ll even
pay for the entire party. And in front of all the other guests, the host said, “no.”

According to the story, this was the reason the Temple was destroyed, the reason we
commemorate the destruction on the ninth of Av. It was because of, what the rabbis call,
Senseless Hatred, Jew verses Jew, baseless feuding. We no longer deserved the Temple, having
lost our focus on the entire purpose of our religious teaching.

Where other peoples might have simply assumed that the Babylonians or Greco-Syrians
were simply stronger, and weakened their religious faith, our people chose to interpret this
devastation as an opportunity. Embedded within pain is always a seed, a kernel of hope and
renewal. Kamza and bar Kamza tells a simple story of misunderstanding and of the hostility and
conflict which can grow from neglected relationships.

In lamentations we read – “my eyes are spent with tears, my heart aches, my very
strength melts away over the ruin. What compares to you, O beautiful Jerusalem, how can I
console you? Your ruin feels as vast as the sea.” (Lam 2:11-13)

Those words are both universal and personal. The desolate city might yet connect to our
lives, for who here has not known desolation and destruction? Perhaps our pain is no longer the
pain for the lost Temple, in actuality anyone feeling sadness about Israel (in the words of Rabbi
Yitz Greenberg) may spend a few hundred dollars and go visit. In fact we may feel happy that
animal sacrifice is no more, and that we are comfortable and safe in the United States and around
the world, without a Temple standing in Jerusalem.

But there is real pain in our lives, and Judaism asks us not to shy away – not to repress or
ignore, but to face and embrace our pain as a part of life – a part of our existential condition.
And to stand up and enter the world carrying that pain with us.

The rabbis called that sense of loss GALUT – exile. We have lost something as a people,
as a community. The Temple becomes a powerful symbol of that loss, but not the only one. For
we do know exile, we know it sitting far away from our homeland, but we also know it sitting in
our cars feeling miles from the person next to us in their car. We feel exile when we send dollars
to help places in the world we cannot find on a map and will never visit. We feel exile when we
feel we cannot make real change in the world, and that perhaps we cannot find real relationships
we desire. Some of us come to feel we are existentially alone in the world, and that too, in exile.
This is Tisha B’av, a few months before our High Holy Days when we will set ourselves
to action, it is time to begin our preparations, it is time to get up and start moving, to deal with
pain we have repressed, time to give voice to our pain.

Just this week we rail at the senseless hatred that leads a man to open fire in a crowded
movie theater in Louisiana. We rage at the loss we feel over the death of Sandra Bland, who
simply points out to us the racial divides that still fracture our communities, and perhaps shows
us another example of how a simple embarrassment leads to something much more sinister.
We feel another kind of loss when we know our country does not live up to its potential,
or that global politics seem misguided. We see the agreement with Iran to develop nuclear
power, and we tremble at the potential for a nuclear weapon aimed at our beloved Israel, could
there be a greater sense of loss?

And for those of us who have experienced the death of a loved one, and there are many of
us here and in our congregation who feel that loss acutely, we know that there is no end to the
journey of grief – it does not fade away to nothing, the grief does not change. But rather we
change, we learn to live in a way that honors grief.

Learning to live with loss, that is the only way through. Not a single one of us makes it
through without feeling pain. Our hope is to share our pain with others, we learn empathy, for
others who have known their own losses, and that diminishes our own pain.

I am always moved by a lesser known tradition that occurs within the traditional
mourning period of shiva. After a week of sitting with friends and family and focusing inward
on our process and our grief, the traditional end to shiva is to simply get up, and take a short
walk, perhaps around the block. Often friends and family accompany one another on this
journey that can sometimes feel like a hundred miles from where we are. Our grief has the
potential to consume us in our personal lives as well, and so allowing ritual to place it into a
context has tremendous power. We have lost a loved one, a mother, a father, a spouse, a child.

And yet we get up, and leave the house for the first time, and we enter a whole new world. This
is the beginning of healing, and as the poet says – grief becomes a powerful teacher when we
learn to support others who are also bowed in grief.

In this week’s Torah portion, the parasha right before Tisha B’av, we sit in sadness, not
only for events long ago but for our own private and communal pain. Rav Lachem Shevet Bahar
Hazeh – you have stayed long enough on this mountain. Cause us to return, O God, to You, and
we will return. Renew our days as of old! For truly, You have rejected us, bitterly raged against