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Dancing into Mourning into Dancing

This week’s sermon on Tisha B’Av.

Mourning for the ancient Temple isn’t at the forefront of the Reform Jewish consciousness. So you might not have known that yesterday was Tisha B’Av, the day of fasting and lamentation commemorating the Temple’s destruction.

This is not a fast I typically observe, unless I’m in a community where that’s the custom, like Jewish camp or, some summers, Jerusalem itself.

While I lament the tragedy that befell our people on this date in centuries past, I (like many Reform Jews) do not mourn the loss of ancient Temple or pray for a return to sacrificial worship. Instead, I celebrate the creativity and innovation that emerged in the wake of the destruction. We rose from the ashes as a more democratic, egalitarian, and portable religion. We evolved into the people committed to communal prayer and lifelong learning, pursuing justice and meaningful change, that we are today.

But there is one aspect of Tisha B’Av that rings relevant this year, and that is the recitation of the biblical book of Lamentations or Eicha. These five chapters describe the pain of bearing witness to the destruction of a city, the mourning of a people going into exile. And while this is not our personal experience, we might still identify with the feeling that we are bearing witness to destruction.

There are two words that are essential to understanding this book. Eicha, “how,” and l’hafoch, “to turn upside down.”

As the first word in the book of Lamentations, Eicha is sometimes translated as part of the sentence that follows, “How lonely sits the city/ once great with people!” Other times, it is written separately, as a cry, “How?!”

We might hear a lot in that cry:

“How could this happen?”

“How can we make sense of this?”

“How do we go on living?”

The other word, which I fell in love with while studying Lamentations in seminary, is the verb l’hafoch, which means to reverse or turn upside down. It can mean opposite or perversity, to overthrow a city, or to reverse the ratio of milk to coffee to make a latte (café afoch).

In Lamentations, this word is used several ways: to refer to the city being “overthrown” like the city of Sodom (4:6), to lament the change in status of the Israelites, “our heritage has passed to aliens/ our homes to strangers” (5:2), and to speak of God’s hand “turning over” on us, signifying that we have fallen out of God’s favor (3:3). The word is used to talk about both communal trauma, “our dancing has turned to mourning” (5:15) and personal anguish, “my heart has turned over within me” (1:20).

Whereas I used to love this word as an abstract concept, right now it feels like a very real way of describing what is going on. It feels like everything is upside down.

This week I attended two incredible online Tisha B’Av experiences. In a session for my professional organization, Rabbi Sarah Reines chanted the last words of victims of COVID-19 and police brutality using eicha trope, a mournful tune used only for this book. In a session with the Jewish Studio Project, Rachel Brodie encouraged us to write our own lamentations: “Take on the voice of your own city, and speak about the experience of pandemic, protest, and other social, economic or political failures.”

I encourage you to write a line of lament, using either eicha, the word “how,” or l’hafoch, the concept of reversal.

Here is part of a lament I wrote this week:

How is it we have come to this?

On weekdays our schools, once full of children, sit empty.

Our summer camps, once ringing with laughter and song, lie deserted.

On Shabbat, we are chained to our screens rather than freed from them.

The joy of a newborn’s arrival has turned to fear and isolation.

We celebrate simchas quietly at home,

And mourn our loved ones alone.

We show love and care by keeping our distance

And assault people with our closeness.

Peaceful protestors rise up; armed forces push them down.

The loudest screams coming from those lamenting they’ve been silenced.

 

We call teachers “selfish” for not wanting to kill children,

The poor “freeloaders” for making more on unemployment than at work.

We call the grocery clerks “essential” but treat them as expendable.

We had no idea what was essential until we couldn’t have it

(or had too much of its opposite).

 

Out on the streets some call masks a civil rights violation,

While our children and their families suffocate at home,

Longing for school, for the fluorescent lights of their offices.

 

Our enemy is invisible,

The sacrifice required of us so small:

All we have been asked to do

Is love our neighbor

And we cannot.

 

Our Temple was destroyed for senseless hatred,

But this is just senseless.

 

The thing about a lament is that we aren’t allowed to leave it at that. We are required to end our lamentation with a nechemta, a word of comfort. When we read Lamentations publicly, we are not allowed to end on the dark last line, “For truly, You have rejected us, Bitterly raged against us.” Rather we repeat an earlier verse, hashivenu eilecha Adonai v’nashuva, chadesh yameinu k’kedem “Take us back, O Eternal, to Yourself, And let us come back; Renew our days as of old!” (5:21).

This is a reminder that reversal can go both ways. As much as our fortunes have been reversed in this moment, there is the possibility that our current situation might also be overturned. We have many roles to play in that reversal, we can’t just sit and wait for it. But in order to do that work, we need to continue to be hopeful that, just as we went from joy to sadness, from community to isolation, we might, someday soon, find our fortunes moving in the opposite direction. We might find the verse we wrote tonight reversed. In the wake of destruction, we lamented, nehefach l’evel m’cholenu, “Our dancing is turned to mourning.” But we might someday hope to sing with the Psalmist: hafachta hisp’di l’machol, “You have turned my mourning into dancing.”

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz

Hear Debbie Friedman z”l’s beautiful setting of this psalm here.