Al Ta’avireinu — Do not move us. In the last half of this week’s Torah portion, Matot (“tribes”), we learn that the tribes of Reuben and Gad possessed a great amount of cattle, had been traveling to Israel for 40 years, and felt that the lands of Jazer and Gilead would be a more suitable place to settle because they possessed enormous amounts of livestock. They came to Moses with this seemingly innocent request, אֶת הַיְַרדֵּן אַל תַעֲבִרֵנוּ–“do not move us to Jordan.” But they were met with great anger and scorn by Moses, who accused them of turning the minds and hearts of the Israelites away from crossing into Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). Moses reminded them that their fathers, after surveying the Land at Moses’ request, had influenced their people in the same way decades earlier, forcing the Israelites into 40 more years of wandering in the wilderness. So they struck a deal with Moses: they would build homes for their families and livestock to stay back in these fortified towns, but they themselves would go out as shock-troops, promising not to return to their homes until every Israelite possessed a portion of the land. Moses accepted this offer.
This notion of “do not move us” is a great fear that many of us have, particularly as we move on in years. We begin to establish roots, normalcies, patterns, and deep connections with our homes, in some cases, whether we like them or not. I can remember my mother complaining year after year about the town we grew up in downstate. However, when the time came for them to leave (they have since returned to a town close by our original home), it was one of the most difficult things she had to experience. Al ta’avireinu. Do not move us. Yet often, when we take that leap of faith and move, we may experience a complete sense of destruction—the tearing down of what was familiar to us—and eventually, a rebirth and rebuilding of something else, which helps us to grow as human beings even more than we had thought possible, and would not have occurred without the destruction.
Next month in the Jewish calendar will bring the fast holiday of Tisha B’Av, which falls on August 10th this year. This day, known as the saddest day of the Jewish year, commemorates the destruction of both the First and Second Temple (in 586 BCE and 70 CE, respectively). It is also believed that on this date, several other tragic events occurred in Jewish life, one of which links us to this Torah portion: God’s decree that the Israelites would wander in the desert for 40 years until a new generation would be ready to enter the Promised Land. Other events include the Bar Kochba Headquarters and Jerusalem falling to Rome in 135 CE, resulting in Hadrian, the Roman emperor, establishing Jerusalem as a pagan city in 136 CE.
When the Second Temple fell, the devastation and utter hopelessness that ensued the Jewish people could have quite possibly led to their demise. Instead, and after much time passed, we turned our mourning into dancing. Once there was no place to make sacrifices to God, Jews had to figure out another way. Thus, the Temple became “temple(s)”—smaller, multiple versions, and the sacrifices became prayers, which were eventually recorded in prayer books. Many liberal Jews are not waiting for the Messiah or the Temple to be re-built and are thrilled and happy to be able to pray in our temples, with our written or personal prayers, and are not keen on reinstituting animal sacrifices.
It is also customary to do a teaching about Tisha B’Av in a wedding, believe it or not, because while we are to celebrate the simcha (happiness) that the wedding brings, we are to also remember that with the sweet came the bitter and sadness, as both go hand in hand. Sefat Emet, a Chassidic Rabbi and master teacher wrote a commentary for his son’s wedding in 1893. He references Psalm 95:6, “Come let us bow down and kneel, bend the knee before God our maker.” Regarding this Psalm, Sefat Emet writes that “Moses foresaw, through the Holy Spirit that the Holy Temple would be destroyed and the offerings of first fruits suspended.” Thus, Moses used this Psalm, along with Psalm 141:2, which states: “Take my prayer as an offering of incense, my upraised hands as an evening sacrifice,” as metaphors to begin to establish a three times a day prayer practice which would eventually take the place of sacrifices. The Sefat Emet writes, “Prayer is beloved of the Blessed Holy One beyond all other good deeds and all the sacrifices.” Rabbi Jonathan Slater teaches that it was possible that even before both Temples were destroyed, there were smaller versions, similar to those today, in which prayer was taking place instead of sacrifice. But many of the Israelites said, “Al ta’avireinu,” “do not move us from the Temple,” and worship as they knew it. Thus, they were never fully able to embrace this practice until they experienced its utter destruction and were left with no choice but to rebuild.
Fasting on Tisha B’Av can serve as a metaphor for the destruction and redemption we often feel in our lives as humans. It is intentionally short because it begins at sundown, typically with a service where the book of Eicha (Lamentations) is read. There is even a different trope—a sad, more contemplative sound. It ends in the sunlight of the afternoon traditionally with a mincha (afternoon) service. The fast and reading of Eicha at sundown allows us to experience this utter sadness and emptiness that comes with destruction. There are morning services also, and no Torah is read, or no tallit or tefillin are worn. However, in the afternoon, the hopefulness comes along with the breaking of the fast as the thirteen attributes of God are recited, along with special prayers of comfort.
The message of Tisha B’Av is not just one of sadness and destruction. It is one of God’s first ways of showing us that things sometimes have to be utterly destroyed so that we can rebuild and begin anew. If you choose to, I wish you a tzom kal (easy fast) for Tisha B’Av, and that this holiday will help you to keep breathing through destruction and hanging onto the hope that redemption is on its way.
Cantor Susie Lewis Friedman
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