By Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs, president, World Union for Progressive Judaism ~
Tisha B’Av in Jerusalem is like no other place on earth. So Vickie and I got up early to walk to the Western Wall. A tinge of sadness came over me as I had to separate from my wife to go pray. I remember the wonderful pictures of pre 1948 Jerusalem when men and women prayed reverently together at our people’s holiest site.
Earlier, while Vickie still slept, I had arisen to study the Megillah of Tisha B’Av, the Book of Lamentations. I studied the first chapter before we left. At the wall I picked up with the second of the books five chapters. I continued until I reached what I consider the climax of the book, verse 40 in chapter 3 which reads: “Let us search and examine our ways, and let us return to the Eternal One.”
For me, when I reach this verse in my annual reading of Lamentations, preparation for the Days of Awe begins. The verse comes after long dirges of destruction and ruin that have overcome our people. It represents the low point of our people’s history and, symbolically, it represents the low point of our human failings. But even after the horrors our ancestors, according to the book committed to deserve the fate of the destruction of Jerusalem, there is hope. If we search and examine our ways, we can do better. We can return to the Almighty’s favor.
The following seven weeks reinforce that hope. Each Haphtorah, beginning with the first words of Isaiah ch. 40 “Nachamu, nachamu ami” – “Take comfort, take comfort, my people,” has a vivid message of hope. The biblical texts call out to us across the ages: If God could forgive our people, the abominations of idol worship, extortion violence and cheating which the Bible describes, then truly God can forgive us for the comparatively minor (hopefully!) sins that each of us must answer for during the Days of Awe.
The genius of our tradition is to encourage us to begin the process of repentance early. Just as no professional sports team simply shows up to open their championship season with the first game they play without several weeks of training, so do we Jews have a training period before Rosh Hashanah. For some, that period begins with the beginning of the month preceding Rosh Hashanah, the month of Elul. For me though, it begins when our people are at our lowest point, on Tisha B’Av. For me it begins when I reach the verse in Lamentations: Let us search and examine our ways, and let us return to the Eternal One.
Rabbi Fuchs is the former spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford. As the newly-appointed president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism he and his wife Vickie spend much of their time in Israel, where he wrote this reflection.
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