The commemoration of Tisha B’Av, the anniversary of catastrophic events in Jewish history (including the destruction of the First and Second Temples) occurred on a Thursday this past year. I have written before about my own ambivalence about the day (well, I am not so ambivalent, but that’s a different story). But in Israel, it remains a big deal. Especially for those who are religiously observant, the weeks leading up to this date are increasingly morose, with certain pleasures discouraged and an emphasis on the seismic shifts that devastated the Jewish people thousands and hundreds and dozens of years ago. The day itself includes fasting, mourning practices, and the recitation of Lamentations, which is not an easy book to read in any circumstance.
The Shabbat that follows is called the sabbath of consolation. The prophetic reading begins with the words, “Comfort, comfort, oh my people,” and the section of the Torah recited includes the Ten Commandments and the Sh’ma, arguably the signature affirmations of our relationship with the divine. In synagogues and study halls, rabbis and other teachers teach or preach on those themes.
I took notice this year that the messages and sermon prompts sent out by denominational and educational organizations (and individual rabbis) arrived, as usual, mid-week. They mostly noted the week’s focus on grief and desolation, but they all focused on the message of comfort that comes with Shabbat.
It is not news that I am retired for about a year now. I no longer spend any time during the week wondering what message I will deliver to my congregation, IRL or virtual. Likewise, I no longer lead a congregation in prayer, so I am released from the responsibility to keep them on the same page (literally) or offer gentle hints about when to stand, sit, sing, or silence.
The first year in more than 40 that I attended High Holy Day services as a Jew in the pew (after I left my congregation), I was astonished and deeply moved by the liturgy in a way I had never experienced. It moved through me like a river, inspiring and immersing my only audience: me. All of the preparing and explaining I had done for others had come to rest in my very personal experience of prayer and penitence, and I remember thinking, “Oh, so this is what it is like!” Me. The rabbi.
So, almost ten years down the road, it struck me that my friends and colleagues who take Tisha B’Av so seriously must, ironically, refuse themselves the experience of being awash and saturated in the meaning of the season to look ahead to comfort before its time. As we joke with each other all the time, “sermons don’t write themselves;” they require reflection, preparation, craftsmanship. Preparing one takes you from today and transports you to tomorrow or the next day, asking you to prophesy what concern of heart and mind you must address for people who do not yet themselves know the answer.
The rabbi – really any clergy of any faith -- is the one person cheated out of the phenomenon of the moment in a roomful of people anticipating that moment. The cost of deepening an experience for others, in a classroom, online, or from the pulpit, is stepping out of the moment before its time and denying yourself the fullness and richness of that experience you so faithfully commend to others. As the agent of spiritual surprise, the surprise is lost on you. As the guide to hidden awe, the awe is revealed absent its context.
I think that mostly I didn’t notice it until recently. After all, it’s what I did: pastoring, preaching, promoting, pointing. For as much as I talked about the past and the present, I myself had no choice but to live a significant part of my life in the future. I will say now, after noticing others living my former life, I am glad to be able to leave the future behind.
I spent 35 years in the pulpit and learned a few things about the people and the profession