Ve’al Kol Yoshvei Tevel – Including our world in Tisha B’Av

I normally begin my blog posts with a greeting, but it is forbidden to greet others on Tisha B’Av, so instead I will begin with a memory. 

It’s 2011, the summer between 7th and 8th grades, and I’m at summer camp. Tonight is Erev Tisha B’Av, the beginning of the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, which commemorates all the bad things that have happened to the Jews. The somber, downcast mood is so different from the mood of camp, and I’m hungry already in anticipation of fasting the next day. Instead of the normal evening activities by age group, we have a special program for the whole camp in honor of the holiday. We hold hands, singing “ozi v’zimrat yah” a prayer for strength, and walk through camp to the the ulam the largest room at camp. There, we continue to hold hands and walk in a circle around the room where counselors line the perimeter reading about the tragic events that we are trying to commemorate; the return of spies from the land of Israel (Numbers 13-14), the destruction of the temples, the expulsion of Jews from Spain, the holocaust, and more. Once we’ve all heard the counselors speeches, we sit on the floor and the camp director stands up and talks more about Tisha B’Av. I can’t recall exactly what he told us, or the rest of the activity. But I remember feeling overwhelmed, downcast, and also supported by my community. As a 13-year-old, I could understand the somber feeling, but I didn’t truly comprehend the depth of what it means to commemorate thousands of years of Jewish suffering in one day. 

Another memory: it’s 2018, I’m a Sophomore in college, and I’m home for Pesach with my entire extended family on my mom’s side. My mom’s family has a special seder every year called “Seder Highlights” on the last Saturday of Pesach, in which we all gather to do the parts of the seder that are our favorites. Early in the festivities, we popcorn-style tell the story of Pesach; from Joseph’s dreams through the ten commandments. As the resident Jewish-studies-student and future-rabbi, I’ve come to tell a lot of the story, often in enough detail that my great-uncle Max will cut in saying, “It’s just like all the other holidays; they tried to kill us, we survived, now let’s eat!” He’s not wrong, many of the holidays follow the basic troupe; Pesach, Hanukkah, Purim, etc. 

If all of our holidays celebrate the survival of the Jewish people, why do we need a whole day to celebrate the suffering? 

My mother would say that we need it to remember our ancestors who suffered to give us the opportunity to have the good life we have now. My father would say that we must remember that Jews have been persecuted, are persecuted, and will continue to be persecuted, so we shouldn’t get too comfortable in our good life. 

I’m inclined to understand the acknowledgment of suffering differently. Instead of focusing on past atrocities for the sole purpose of grief, I believe that this grief allows us to build righteous anger and to seek justice; not only for ourselves, not only for our communities, not only for the Jewish people, but “ve’al kol yoshvei tevel,” for all who dwell on earth. 

This “kol yoshvei tevel” includes each and every person regardless of age, gender, sexuality, race, political affiliation, religion, or ability. 

We have seen the dangers of not speaking out. “Eyn od”, it is on us, to speak out against injustice wherever we see it. As Jews, and even more as queer Jews who experience grief, isolation, and injustice as an accumulation of our marginalized identities.

Whether or not Tisha B’av is part of your practice, I urge you to take this opportunity to take stock of what you are doing for the world. Notice the events that our descendants will someday remember as a part of this holiday, and think if there is anything you can do to bring about an end to these atrocities- for Jews, for Queers, and for all humanity.

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