The Jewish religious year is unflinchingly hope-filled. I almost wrote “unflinchingly optimistic,” but that doesn’t quite get it. Optimism believes everything is going to turn out all right, but the prophets often give us a picture of things that don’t turn out all right, at least in the short term. Hope looks at the disappointments and disasters, doesn’t deny them, and sees something beyond, the promise of God, which might come to pass only after long delay.
We need to absorb the message of our days of mourning, which underlies the even bigger message of hope. When we read the Book of Lamentations on Tisha b’Av (anniversary of the destruction of the first and second temples, August 1 this year), we don’t end with the final verse—“unless You have utterly rejected us and are exceedingly angry with us.” Instead, after we read this threatening verse we re-read the verse before to conclude on a note of hope:
Bring us back to You, Adonai,
and we will return.
Renew our days as of old. (Lam. 5:21–22, TLV)
Leading up to Tisha b’Av are three weeks of affliction or admonition, with harsh readings from Jeremiah and Isaiah. After Tisha b’Av come seven weeks of comfort or consolation, beginning this week with Isaiah 40.
Nachamu nachamu ami.
“Comfort, comfort My people,”
says your God.
Speak kindly to the heart of Jerusalem
and proclaim to her
that her warfare has ended,
that her iniquity has been removed.
For she has received from Adonai’s hand
double for all her sins. Is. 40:1–2, TLV
Note that the word for “comfort” here, nachamu, is stated twice. We’ve been afflicted, and now we receive two-fold comfort. Rashi wonders why Jerusalem must receive “double for all her sins,” and cites Targum Jonathan: “For she has received a cup of consolation from before the Lord as though she has been punished doubly for all her sins.” It’s a statement of mercy. Hashem is telling Jerusalem that she’s suffered more than enough, and now it’s time for consolation. Likewise, we’ve had three weeks of admonition leading up to Tisha b’Av and now we get seven weeks—twice three plus one—of comfort.
Tisha b’Av is a day that crushes optimism—on the Jewish journey through history things don’t always turn out well. This date marks not only the destruction of both the first and second temples, but catastrophes that came centuries afterward, like the expulsion of a once-brilliant Jewish community from Spain in 1492, or the beginning of World War I in 1914, which ushered in the horrors of 20th century European Jewish history. We don’t like to commemorate such things, and our consumerist culture, which includes consumerist religious culture, looks for immediate cheer and uplift. Optimism in the sense that I describe above feeds right into this: “Don’t look at all those nasty problems, everything’s going to be fine!” But the hope that Scripture talks about arises as we face the grim music of our history, and mourn in solidarity with all Israel. Hope in the biblical sense requires the backdrop of suffering. Without death there can be no resurrection.
This kind of hope is a core exercise of our individual spiritual practice. The calendar leads us through the death of optimism to a rebirth of hope. The weeks after Tisha b’Av prepare us for the Days of Awe—Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur—which are solemn days, but days of profound renewal as well. The cycle of the Jewish year provides the essential script for a drama of spiritual growth. Its message for us individually is to shift our focus from the events and circumstances that crowd in all around us and onto the Source, the power behind all events and circumstances, who overcomes them all in the end.
In my counseling practice, I often work with folks struggling with depression. There’s a temptation to view depression strictly as a disorder, as a malady that should be cured as quickly and efficiently as possible. With the advent and continuing evolution of anti-depressant medications, this temptation is even more intense—just find the right drug and the correct dosage and the problem is solved! Anti-depressant medication is appropriate in some cases, and I’m thankful that it’s available. But depression isn’t just an illness to be cured; it’s an aspect of our humanity, part of life’s journey for many of us that can teach and transform us, even as we work to overcome it. Folks with depression can often see beyond the superficial optimism of the day to recognize problems more clearly—and do something about them. I’m thinking of Churchill, who referred to depression as his “black dog” that showed up from time to time, and probably helped him recognize the rising threat of the 1930’s when so many colleagues were trying to cheerfully ignore it. Likewise, Lincoln suffered from “melancholy,” as a number of his contemporaries noted. Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Lincoln’s Melancholy (Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2005) writes,
With Lincoln we have a man whose depression spurred him, painfully, to examine the core of his soul; whose hard work to stay alive helped him develop crucial skills and capacities, even as his depression lingered hauntingly; and whose inimitable character took great strength from the piercing insights of depression, the creative responses to it, and a spirit of humble determination forged over decades of deep suffering and earnest longing.
My point isn’t to minimize depression, which is a real and painful struggle. Rather, I’m using it as a metaphor. Just as depression, tough as it is, can be a teacher and guide, so the dark valleys of the Jewish calendar, like Tisha b’Av or Yom HaShoah, are essential guideposts on the journey of transformation that is built into each year. Like depression, the mournful days of remembrance deepen our hope and our reliance on the source of hope.
During the seven weeks leading to the Days of Awe, I hope to post some blogs on spiritual practice appropriate to this time. So, as a starting point, I recommend embracing the sad parts of the story as well as the glorious parts. We live in spiritual exile. Our Messiah passed through the agonies of death and rose again—but we still await his return to complete the redemption. In the meantime, as we approach the holiest day of year, Yom Kippur, we prepare with serious self-reflection and repentance. We don’t deny the afflictions of our history and our own lives, and so we’re enabled to receive comfort for them. We don’t deny the painful times; instead, we let them do their work of deepening and intensifying our hope.
Every valley will be lifted up,
every mountain and hill made low,
the rough ground will be a plain
and the rugged terrain smooth.
The glory of Adonai will be revealed,
and all flesh will see it together. Isaiah 40:4 – 5, TLV