For the Sake of Ascent (Va’etchanan & Tisha b’Av)
By Reb David
This week encompasses the Jewish year’s lowest low and highest highs. After three weeks of waning energy, our lowest low is Tisha b’Av, the Jewish commemoration of destruction and exile. The highest highs bring us to Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments and hear the Shema’s call to love God, both in this week’s Torah portion (Va’etchanan).
The lowest low and highest highs twinned together – it seems too much to absorb. Either one alone pushes our boundaries almost to the breaking point. Either the many destructions and exiles of Jewish history that Tisha b’Av commemorates, or the Sinai scene of encountering God, or the Shema’s call to love God “with all your heart, all your soul, and all you are” – any one of these three defies our normal human senses and understandings. Yet this week calls us into all of them together. How?
Let’s put an even finer point on the question. If you know Temple Beth-El of City Island well, you know that one can see Manhattan’s skyline from City Island. You may also know that on September 11, 2001, City Islanders saw spoke plumes billowing from Manhattan as the World Trade Center burned; our synagogue displays artwork of Jewish stars formed from a Twin Towers support beam gifted to us from the community. The 9/11 carnage is burned viscerally into the memory of City Islanders, New Yorkers, Americans and others worldwide. Just the picture of 9/11 rubble evokes tremendous grief. Tragic as the over 3,000 deaths of 9/11 were – and as impossible as it is to make comparisons between tragedies – Tisha b’Av is even more. Tisha b’Av is 9/11, the Holocaust, Jewish exiles, the Crusades, and the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples all together. Tisha b’Av is the day that we face the truths that all things are temporary and that destruction is part of life. Tisha b’Av beckons us into that rubble – physical, emotional and spiritual – in every way. The descent of Tisha b’Av brings us to our breaking points.
And yet, during the very week of Tisha b’Av – precisely at our lowest ebb – Torah reminds us of receiving the Ten Commandments at Sinai, encountering holiness atop the mountain. In this very week, Torah gifts the watchwords of the Jewish faith – the Shema, the existential Oneness of all. At our lowest ebb, Torah and tradition immediately lift us high.
This is exactly the spiritual point, and the spiritual invitation of this moment in the Jewish year. Hasidic wisdom teaches yeridah tzorech aliyah (ירידה צורך עליה) – descent for the sake of ascent. We descend not to glorify suffering but for the purpose of rising even higher. Joseph descended – into the pit, to Egypt, into jail – all for the sake of ascending. Israelites descended to Egypt, sunk into centuries of servitude, so their descendants would know the heart of the slave, stranger, orphan and widow. In our own day, we descend into Tisha b’Av, allowing ourselves to fully inhabit the sometimes tragic losses inherent in life, for the purpose of rising high. Just as one can’t toss a ball up underhand except by first lowering one’s hand, spiritually we descend for the sake of ascent. We give our descent meaning and holiness by dedicating it to the purpose of ascent.
How can Tisha b’Av help us ascend? By crumbling our inner walls, we face in our own lives the truth of inner exile: we can’t stay here. We can’t stay where we are: we must journey, and we must change. By opening to these deepest truths in the most visceral ways, we naturally ready ourselves for spiritual journeying and transformation. That is the invitation of the Ten Commandments whose receipt we recall in this week’s Torah portion. That is the timeless truth of the Shema whose words also appear in this week’s Torah portion. That is the path of teshuvah (return and forgiveness) we begin anew on Tisha b’Av as we turn toward Rosh Hashanah and the Days of Awe. And the annual cycle begins again.
Twin extremes of high and low, like the former Twin Towers, stand together in our memory and our hearts. In this week of Tisha b’Av, may we all have the courage to descend and the strength to hold each other wherever the descent takes us – and then the freedom to ride the updraft of ascent toward a new year filled with light and joy.