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Parashat Devarim 5780

July 24, 2020

Into and Through Tisha b’Av: Our Fragile Alchemy of “Why”
A D’var Torah for Parashat Devarim
By Rabbi David Markus

There’s gotta be a reason. What’s happening now must be a reaction to something that came before. Someone must be responsible: maybe me, maybe you, maybe all of us. Any God that is good and fair must have some purpose in all this – right?

We sense this yearning for “why” just under the surface. After all, there’s lots to explain, and mere natural explanations don’t always suffice. That’s why so many people, of all faiths, might seek and see divine purpose in most everything from covid to tornadoes.

The human psyche – that sacred alchemy of supernal light and stardust – naturally seeks explanation for life’s twists and turns. For every fairness or unfairness, victory or defeat, comfort or suffering, we’re wired to connect the dots of causation with some coherence. If we’re deeply honest, senselessness ranks among our top fears – that what shapes our lives might lack purpose.

Spiritually speaking, our resulting human drive to make meaning of life’s warp and woof is “theotropic,” naturally turning us toward the transcendent we feebly call God. Yet from our faithful heights – especially at this time of year – the dropoff into senselessness, nihilism and disbelief can seem just a few perilous steps away. What if life’s happenings are too big to explain? What if there’s no fair explanation? What if?

If the ground beneath us feels unsteady, if we feel a bit more fragile, then perhaps we’re right on time. Welcome to the month of Av.

This week in Torah, a fragile Moses begins his “second telling” (Deuter-onomy) by fixing cause for his exhaustion and deprivation: it’s the people’s fault. They were so restive that how – pointedly in Hebrew, Eicha, hinting at the Megillat Eicha (Lamentations) journey of Tisha b’Av now approaching – could Moses bear them? (Deut. 1:12). The people “refused” to follow, and they “defied” God (Deut. 1:26). They “sulked” (Deut. 1:27). They were “faithless” (Deut. 1:32). “Because of [them],” a bitter Moses concluded, he could not enter the Land (Deut. 1:37). In Moses’ re-telling, it was their fault – never mind God, and never mind Moses’ own responsibility.

Collective defiance similarly permeates Isaiah’s haunting prophetic vision (hazon) of calamity with divine purpose (Isaiah 1). Talmud’s rabbis followed that the Temple’s fall likewise had reason – even if the people punctiliously fulfilled mitzvot of Torah, service and acts of kindness! Thus, the rabbis famously wrote, the Temple fell due to senseless hatred (sinat hinam) among the people (B.T. Yoma 9b). Whatever we imagine to be the measure of our learning and piety, the fall’s still our fault.

Yet no earthly power in the Jerusalem of 70 C.E. could have halted the Roman Legion. Historically speaking, the Temple fell because Rome toppled it. But that’s not the point. R. Alan Lew’s This is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared – a book I’ve re-read so many times at this season that my copy is falling apart – reminds that the historical fact of Rome’s insurmountable power is vanishingly irrelevant compared to the spiritual truth of our own yearning to make meaning and take responsibility 2,000 years later.

What’s factual is only the start of spiritual meaning-making. That’s the point of this month of Av, when Jewish tradition harnesses what is difficult, what feels hot and dry, and what feels fragile to begin turning us. Jewish life is powerfully radical to deem this turn possible, much less by descent for the sake of ascent (yeridah tzorekh aliyah).

Yes, it presents us with theological quandaries that we might never conclusively answer. We might never know for sure whether God sends life’s lemons, much less for a reason – because we deserve them? to refine our souls? as “chastisements of love” (yesurim shel ahavah)? – or if God doesn’t send lemons but primes our thirst for lemonade, or inspires us to make it. (All of these responses are very Jewish.) We might never know the full meaning of why Moses couldn’t enter the Land, or that the Temple fell, or that covid ravages the United States, or that a tornado ripped through.

But meaning is more than why, and right now answers are beside the point and even counterproductive. Av’s message is that not our answers but our deepest questions – inwardly asked with integrity – can most potently aerate the soil of our lives and fertilize it for new growth. It is our not-knowing, even our fragility, that most powerfully can catalyze us for the journey ahead. And it is our daring to imagine its possibility that can help us make it so.

Yes, the walls will breach, the Temple will fall, structures and systems will fail – and only then can the Holy Presence go with us into “exile” (B.T. Megillah 29a). With courage, integrity and time, we might just discover that beyond the walls of our answers await our greatest soul adventures of comfort and becoming anew.
Rabbi David Evan Markus (AJR Adjunct Faculty – Rabbinics) is senior rabbi of Temple Beth El of City Island (New York, NY) and Founding Builder of Bayit: Building Jewish, a spiritual innovation start-up for all ages and stages. Rabbi Markus also serves as Faculty in Spiritual Direction and past Board Co-Chair for ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. By day, Rabbi Markus presides as Judicial Referee in New York Supreme Court, 9th Judicial District, as part of a parallel career in government service.