Torah | Out of the darkness and into the lightby rabbi yoel kahn
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Have you ever been part of “the wave” at a stadium? Isn’t it fun? We often talk about how much we enjoy our individuality and how each person is unique, but we don’t always acknowledgehow satisfying it is to lose ourselves in something much bigger, be it a crowd at a game, singing in a choir or marching in a demonstration.
Emotions, too, are strongly felt when shared with others — the World Series parade, an electoral victory, or perhaps the end of Yom Kippur in synagogue. Our feelings are deepened and amplified when we experience them with the larger group, whether a fleeting community (at the game) or across millennia (as part of the Jewish people).
The Jewish calendar invites us to share in communal, emotional and spiritual experiences. During summer, we mark our darkest days in the annual cycle. Legend teaches that the Temple in Jerusalem fell on the ninth of Av in 586 BCE, leading to the Babylonian Exile, and that the Second Temple also was destroyed on this day in 70 C.E. While the three weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av are filled with summer daylight, in the Jewish historical imagination they are bleak and discouraging.
These weeks are quiet, somber and shadowed by the impending loss, yet immediately after the ninth of Av (this year July 16) we begin preparations for the High Holy Day season. If the weeks preceding Tisha B’Av are the period of maximum alienation, depression and exile, then the High Holy Day season is the opposite, a period of maximum intimacy, closeness and love.
The Hassidic teacher Rabbi Avraham Weinberg of Slonim (1889-1981), in Birkat Avraham, points out that the three weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av total 21 days, and that the High Holy Day season is 21 days as well (measuring from Rosh Hashanah to Shemini Atzeret, or the last day of Sukkot). In gematria, the Jewish system of assigning numerical value to the letters of the alphabet, 21 is the value of Ehyeh, the name revealed to Moses at the burning bush.
Standing at the bush, Moses asks in Exodus 3:14, Who is sending me on this journey? And the voice replies: Ehyeh, which can be translated as I am becoming. Rabbi Abraham explains that even in the moments of our greatest alienation and separation, Ehyeh, the one who is becoming, is with us.
Humanity believed for a long time that all orbits were perfect circles, that two bodies in relationship always remained at equal distance. But, in fact, astronomical orbits invariably are ovals. Consequently, there are times when the two bodies are closer and times they are necessarily farther apart.
This is also true of our human relationships, which are a microcosm and reflection of our relationships with the Holy One. We are held by forces of connection and mutual gravity; we are in mutual orbit with those who are important to us. Inevitably there are times when we are closer and times when we are further apart.
We are not static but becoming; we can wake up and realize that we have drifted apart and proactively move toward greater intimacy. That is why this season’s key word is teshuvah — redirection, renewed attention and, most important, turning. We can and do turn from silence to speech, from alienation to intimacy, from distance to closeness, from holding on to resentment to reconciliation and renewal.
Every authentic relationship inevitably includes times of greater closeness and times of greater distance. The Jewish calendar teaches that even in the times of distance, we can be like Ehyeh — becoming, transforming, moving back toward intimacy and connection. As Rabbi Avraham notes, the number 21 squared is 441, which is the numerical value of emet, truth.
Rabbi Yoel Kahn is rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Berkeley. This column is based on a teaching by Rabbi Jonathan Slater of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, http://ijs-online.org.
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