Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Three friends are having a hard time. One laments being lonely unpartnered. Another tends a spouse with a tough prognosis. A third faces an unjust assault to a career.
Oy, such downers for the hazy, lazy days of mid-summer!
Of course, the comforting idea that certain times are “supposed” to be happy isn’t always the world’s way. Real life rarely follows our schedules. When life feels cold and hard when we expect it to be warm and soft, we’re prone to feel doubly hurt – once by actual events, and again by how distant those events feel from what we expect. Expectations can end up hurting more than they help.
So too with personas we want (or feel we’re “supposed”) to have. My three friends in tough times all remarked that among their hurts is that hardship cost them their public face and sense of self. The lonely one mourns a happy identity now feeble or fake. The one tending an ill spouse pre-mourns death (“anticipatory grief” is exactly that). The victim of injustice laments the crumbling of identity based on career achievement.
When bad things happen to good people, ultimately there’s no running away – no effective claim that now’s not the right time, no self-defense behind persona’s shield. There’s nowhere to run from oneself.
All true – and this seemingly dark truth also can be a portal to a renewed inner life.
On the Jewish calendar, mid-summer leads through Tisha b’Av, which this year falls August 13-14. Historically the day recalls the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and Israelites’ exile from their ancestral homeland in the year 70 C.E. The day also recalls history’s countless other Jewish tragedies. From none of them was there anywhere to run: the Jewish people had to face them and, somehow, survive and become more resilient.
Survival and resilience come not by gritting teeth and steeling against change, but by allowing healthy change and letting go of what inhibits change. Often what must change are our expectations, personas, even theologies. Things ancient Jews held most dear – Temple, homeland, ways of being – had to shift on their foundations. Jews survived and thrived not because Jews stayed the same, but precisely because Jews changed.
It was precisely because there was nowhere to run from change that our ancestors could find renewed strength, resilience and creative adaptation. Today we don’t celebrate tragedy and loss – of course not! – but we can learn to seek in them the letting-go and becoming-anew that are secret wellsprings of our individual and collective futures.
This Jewish survival secret is a core spiritual lesson of Tisha b’Av, coming exactly seven weeks before Rosh Hashanah. This time invites us to confront confounded expectations and brittle personas for what they are, and seek in their release new strength, resilience and creative adaptation. The lonely friend stops pretending a happy persona. The friend with a sick spouse acknowledges fear of loss. The friend facing a career challenge begins to ask who he is without the façade of externally validating career success. Dropping the fear of releasing expectation and pretense, we start finding renewal.
In 2008, J.K. Rowling, author of the famed “Harry Potter” series, addressed Harvard’s commencement exercises. Her speech was about the failures of her life that inspired her to begin anew, but her words might well have been a Tisha b’Av liturgy. She said:
[F]ailure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was. [Failure set me] free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive…. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
For everyone in hard times, feel them for all they are. Let them cull every expectation, façade and sense of self whose time has come to soften and shed. Let them fall. And as rock bottom comes, let it be a solid foundation for rebuilding with renewed strength, resilience and creativity.