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In the Beginning There Was Not: A Tisha B'Av Reflection

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The following is the first in a series of excerpts from Uri L'Tzedek's "Rising in the Night: Compassion and Justice in a Time of Despair," a collection of reflections, poems and calls to action intended to bring mindfulness and social justice to the experience of Tisha B'Av.

No one moulds us again out of earth and clay,
no one conjures our dust.
No one.
Praised be your name, no one.
For your sake
we shall flower.
Towards
you.

A nothing
we were, are, shall
remain, flowering:
the nothing-, the no one's rose.

With
our pistil soul-bright,
with our stamen heaven-ravaged,
our corolla red
with the crimson word which we sang
over, O over
the thorn.


--"Psalm" by Paul Celan, trans. Michael Hamburger

All beginnings lack. One could say that the beginning of the story is in the paradise we lost, in the utopia we yearn for, "as in days of old" (Lamentations 5:21). But the story does not begin in that paradisiacal stasis. The story can only begin in the occasion of a break; it only begins with change.

Tisha B'Av is our beginning (and all beginnings are the beginning of the end).

Even G?d's beginning commences with negation. G?d's first act is not one of creation but of self-limitation, with tzimtzum. Isaac Luria's greatest student, Hayyim Vital, writes in his Etz Hayyim,

When it arose in the singular will of G?d to create the cosmos ... then, G?d negated G?d's infinite self in the central point within, in the focus of the holy light, contracting this light, which receded to the sides surrounding the central point. There remained an opened space, an empty void... (Derush Adam Kadmon §2)

The point of origin is one of emptiness. The beginning of G?d's creative activity is removal, withdrawal. G?d's self-removal is the condition for the very possibility of there being anything at all. For there to be anything else, G?d's infinite being must recede, must make space. If G?d, in transcendent perfection, were to persist in utter wholeness, then there could be no us, there could be no relationship, there could be no dialogue, there could be no-thing at all. Vital describes G?d's motivation as stemming from the intense desire to bring benevolence to those who would come into being. The only means to bring presence is through absence.

All later iterations of destruction (churban), of rupture (shevirah) are repetitions of the initial absence. When we confront emptiness, our experience is not that nothing is there, rather that something is there no longer. Fullness is conditioned on that emptiness. To fill something up we first must empty it out. Tisha B'Av presents us with two themes, curling around each other, fitting perfectly together. The practices of the day model rituals of mourning, calling back in our collective memory for the loss we carry with us each day. "When Av arrives, we decrease our joy" (Babylonian Talmud Ta'anit 26b). We match our living to the consciousness we inherit. But it is precisely on Tisha B'Av, the day commemorating our lowest point, that redemption, repair, tikkun become most present. We cannot mend what has not been broken. We must delve into our brokenness to come to a place of healing. The story begins in destruction, in negation, but culminates in re-creation.

On Tisha B'Av (after Tisha B'Av, we are always after Tisha B'Av) we are left with ruins, the emptiness remains. We are left with what was, with the past as such. But what is a ruin? Anselm Kiefer, a contemporary German artist, whose work confronts his nation's own ruinous history, is entranced by what has been destroyed.

What interests me is the transformation, not the monument. I don't construct ruins, but I feel ruins are moments when things show themselves. A ruin is not a catastrophe. It is the moment when things can start again.

We cannot allow our confrontations with destruction, with catastrophe, with emptiness where there once was, paralyze us. The gap that is opened in rupture must also be an opening to possibility. The Maggid of Meziritsh, in his Maggid Devarav Le-Ya'akov, wrote that for anything to grow, it must always pass through ayin (nothingness). To be destroyed is to confront one's very dissolution, but it is also to be open to what one can become. G?d, precisely due to being infinite (Eyn Sof, without limits), is No-thing (Ayin) at all, radical possibility.

This is the challenge with which we at Uri L'Tzedek present you, today. Delve deep into Tisha B'Av. This fast day is notorious for its occurrence during the most uncomfortable time of year. The three weeks cut into our summer fun, the heat of the day beats down on us, intensifying our enervation. But we must make sure that these experiences of suffering bring us understanding in what it means to be in pain, what it means to be lacking, what it means to be in need.

This volume presents the reader with a selection of essays, textual commentaries, and calls to action, sharing a common goal to prompt a new way of thinking about this most tragic of times and what we can draw from it. All true justice work entails transformation, both without, redeeming what has fallen, but also within. To change the world, we must change ourselves. We must not just acknowledge but be reshaped by the suffering we witness.

Poems replete with anguish and longing are central to the liturgy of Tisha B'Av, as we read scores of kinnot (lamentations) describing for the reader the stark reality of our people's suffering. The key to a poem is to show, not tell. It brings the reader in tune with an experience otherwise lost. It can impart truths of experience, helping to bring us all to a place of real compassion, the true starting point of all justice work. The Hebrew word for compassion (rachamim) is drawn from the word for womb (rechem), an empty space within that is not a loss, but, as in the case of the Divine, the condition for the possibility of newness, of generation. We at Uri L'Tzedek hope that, on this Tisha B'Av, you do experience loss and lowness, absence and even pain, but that these moments of ache bring you to vulnerability, to compassion, and from there to a world of redemption.

This column is an excerpt from "Rising in the Night: Compassion and Justice in a Time of Despair," a social justice Tisha B'Av Supplement published by Uri L'Tzedek. The title "Rising in the Night" alludes to one of the Book of Lamentations' most striking lines, imploring the reader to, "Rise and cry out in the night ... pour out our heart like water before the presence of the L-rd; lift up your hands to Him for the life of your children, those who are faint with hunger, at the opening of the streets" (Lamentations 2:19). The pain experienced during the most heightened moment of national despair becomes a compulsion to care for the vulnerable in one's community.

This is the nexus promoted by "Rising in the Night." Uri L'Tzedek seeks to connect the Jewish people's communal narrative of destruction and promised redemption to issues of social justice, which resound in us today. The exile central to Tisha B'Av can make us more aware of today's plague of human trafficking. The narrative of that most high city being brought low can make us more sensitive to more personal forms of despair, such as increasing incidents of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. All of these convergences and more are brought together in "Rising in the Night," which will soon be available for download here.